My son learned to count to 43 in Spanish the other night, at a wonderfully sincere, righteous and yet, fun (his assessment) march and vigil for reform, revolution, and legal and moral atonement, over the murder by the state of Mexico and its narco-patrons of Left-progressive students at a teachers’ college.
My kid has been taught that he is himself part Mexican-American, but in a crowd of browner, shorter, Spanish-speaking protesters he might have wondered at the beautiful malleability of race, identity, politics, empathy and – his mom and I hope – solidarity.
About 500 or so mostly young people gathered at Cabrillo Park in Santa Ana to walk the long, slow, deliberate way to the Mexican Consulate. They marched in a lively, angry sort of funerary procession escorted by police and making as much noise as possible: chanting, singing and counting together to the depressingly high number cuarenta y tres.
The signs, candles, banners were the least of it. The people were a vibrant assembly of young and old punks, black-clad students, mothers and fathers and grandparents, accompanied by the singing and guitar strumming political troubadours of a local son jarocho group.
It was a march led all over the U.S., in concert with a national day of protest in Mexico and world-wide. This one was organized by Emmanuel Gonzalez, a senior at Beckman High in Irvine and fellow activists.
There were cameras from Spanish-language media (none from local commercial English-language TV), print and online journalists and photographers (thank you, Voice of OC).
But nobody I recognized was from my own neighborhood or my boy’s school. No teaching colleagues from either of the two higher-ed institutions where my wife and I work. No Democratic Party types, no priests or pastors or rabbis, no elected officials or high-profile anybodies.
It was the second time this week I’d been lucky to be among protesters, mostly young people.
The first was at a UC Irvine rally where, alas, no Senate faculty or administrators showed for a student-organized protest of the absurd tuition hike by the University of California Regents – a bit of further class warfare against the poor, students of color and therefore the entire system, so obviously diminished as a result.
My fellow lecturers and some terrific teaching assistants were there. Speeches offered by student speakers were astonishingly, gratifyingly smart and affecting – if completely unwitnessed by people who have power to engage them, answer them or endorse their arguments, but consistently do not.
I was especially impressed by a student who stood at what amounted to an open mic scene and, at the flag pole in front of the entryway steps to campus, asked where everybody else was, where the fuck the rest of the UCI students were – those who would be asked to come up with the cash to pay for once “free” public education or whose friends and fellows and siblings would have to.
Everybody knew the answer. But this time, after hearing the question asked once again – after so many years – I confess I found only a giddy schadenfreude. A meanness and wicked, hilarious contempt for the fools who were being called out, who were not there, who would never be there, and would be denied the reckless joy – yes, joy – I experienced with our small congregation, and then again more so on Thursday night in Santa Ana.
I guess I’m a slow learner. Because it finally occurred to me that the “rest of them” would never be at the demonstration, and that we didn’t need them.
Not the vice chancellors or the tenured faculty, not the administrators and counselors and other official grown-ups who should know – and know better. Whose long dreamed-of, hoped-for participation could indeed, in a humane and rational world, mean critical mass, a turning point, a change in the weather.
And about this I felt fine. I felt that stupid burden of hoping for, counting on these invisible people, non-citizens, finally – self-disappeared if you will, from civic engagement and abandoned of conscience – lifted from me at last.
No – instead, I realized, they needed us even though they did not know it. They were missing, and missing something human and real, and should be felt sorry for, pitied.
This new perspective might make a person smug, angry, dismissive, impatient. Fine. All of the above but with joy.
I am finding it a lot better than pretending, lying to oneself, and asking the same question over and over again.
The Santa Ana march, down Tustin Ave. and then Fourth Street from the park, was indeed beautiful. Sunset offered its thin orange glow through the clouds, accompanied by the simultaneous takeoff of a hundred wild parrots from the trees, the lighting of votive candles.
There was the strong, musky smell of incense and singing and, as if in answer to the question from that frustrated UCI student, there arrived reporters who found the middle-aged white dad (me) and his half-white son to inquire why we were there, so obviously flaunting our joyful solidarity, our support for human rights, as if they did not know our answer.
And then, a half dozen times, other demonstrators, self-identified Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, approached to thank us (!) for being there.
Imagine that. Not only experiencing the joy and necessary human fulfillment of meeting, easily, a moral obligation but to be thanked for it, too. It was heartfelt, embarrassing and instructive, and filled me with both gratitude and my newfound empowering contempt.
Yes, if only a few more self-selecting empathizers-at-large had endured the modest embarrassment of both being the minority Other in this circumstance and celebrating its transformative possibilities, the march might have been bigger or covered by English-language media.
And if only a few administrators and professors had arrived at the flag pole to be welcomed, thanked, acknowledged by UCI students, to be seen as joining somebody else’s struggle, it might have been more clearly understood as everybody’s struggle.
This week’s lesson is as obvious as looking around at the crowd and not finding yourself, or finding yourself in singular, humble prominence.
We can be as conspicuous in our absence as we are happily, if angrily, conspicuous in our presence. It’s a good thing to know, a better thing to be, and another way my son might understand how to count.
Andrew Tonkovich lives in Modjeska Canyon and teaches research writing at UC Irvine, where he is the president of the union representing librarians and lecturers. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, LA Times and OC Register Magazine. He also hosts Bibliocracy Radio, a weekly literary arts program on KPFK 90.7 FM and edits the West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review.