Dying Communities, Forgotten Memories

By Rodolfo F. Acuña

With age you become more nostalgic. Lately, for instance, I take things very seriously, and struggles such as the one with the university (CSUN) and its efforts to privatize the university through projects such as the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) accord take on a deeper meaning.

These reflections have become even more meaningful as I explore and review the destruction of communities that were and are still the first line of defense in our wars of survival. Communities are the trenches that defend us against capital attempts to erase our memories and take away our greatest weapon — our memories of past struggles.

When Mexican Americans and Latinos talk about a community, they are generally refer to their barrio, their colonia. It, however, can also refer to their nationality –their people, their paisanos/as.

To be part of a community you have to be bonded with it and care about it. Love begins and ends with responsibility. The people in a community remember common struggles, they share memories, they remember past losses and victories, and rejoice and anguish with what went right and wrong.

The organizers who I have met and spoken to have all had a strong sense of community and recognized how this indefinable entity contributed to their ability to organize resistance among workers and their families.

The great Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) organizer Pat Chambers in a series of interviews credited whatever success the union had had in organizing the Great 1933 San Joaquin Cotton Strike to the workers and their families. According to Chambers, it was not the Communist organizers who kept resistance alive but the workers, wives and families many whom did not know each other before the strike but acted as a community. They remembered past strikes –struggles won and lost.

Dr. Ernesto Galarza who organized the Bakersfield area DiGiorgio Strike in the late 1940s and 1950s incessantly talked about community, saying that the loss of a community represented the loss of a group memory and ability to resist capital. This loss weakened the ability of a community to resist.

In his twilight years Galarza was involved in community struggles such as the preservation of Alviso, a colonia near San Jose.
Galarza’s definition of community was more nostalgic than other organizers yet more profound. The introductory chapter of Barrio Boy (1971) spoke about his early childhood memories of growing up in the Mexican mountain village in Jalcocotán, Nayarit. He wrote “about family and community, culture, nature, and standing up for oneself” – the lessons learned in his community and qualities that he was trying to preserve in Alviso.

In conversations with César Chávez he almost always turned the topic to the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region. It set up a community that resisted the growing globalization process. Although the Farmworkers were not a Mexican Union, everyone knew that the base was Mexican, built on the organic experiences of its members. For example, the symbolism of marching with the banner of the la Virgén de Guadalupe is inescapable.

César’s conversations reminded me of the Mexican mutualistas that were the backbone of many early mining and agricultural strikes. They fed off the Industrial Workers of the World and syndicalist movement of Ricardo Flores Magón.

Because of the importance community, I constantly talk about it so much so that I may appear redundant to many readers.
A community is a social unit whose members share common values. When I was growing up, my home resembled a community. My home and dinner table were always full with extended family and friends. No one was turned away, my mother and grandmother would always say that we could put more water in the frijoles so the dinner table was full with relatives and friends dipping day old bread into the caldo of beans.

Blood and history bonded us. We knew the flaws of each member. The community, however, took on a life of its own and there was a sense of connectedness. We cared about each other and knew who would come through for us in a crisis.

The word “community” is derived from the Latin communitas (from Latin communis). It is defined “a group or network of persons who are connected to each other by social relations that extended beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship (subjectively) as important to their social identity and social practice.” It builds upon the truism “We Become What We Think About.”

The 1950s saw the destruction of urban communities under the guise of urban renewal in Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill. Similar people removal took place in Tucson, El Paso and Chicago where developers destroyed memories so they could make billions of dollars on what had once been communities. People removal destroyed memories to the point that super Chicano nationalists go to Chavez Ravine regularly to gorge themselves on Dodger Dogs.

Remembering what happens in our communities helps us to identify important problems, issues and concerns. It focuses our attention on power structures and on processes such as institutionalized racism. Memory allows us to see the similarities between the genocide of the Native American, Manifest Destiny, urban renewal, and privatization.

A community allows us to build strategies “for analysis, for action and for change.” Examining political and economic factors from the concrete base of the community allows for development of more effective strategies for change. Memory is essential for change. The essence of struggle is to never forget. It is the only effective way to organize against capital that has its memories and strives for hegemony.

I would be the last person in the world to minimize the importance of cuisine in the forging of community. However, like common blood ties it is not enough. We derive strength from cultural memory that carry the seeds of transformative historical experiences. However, eating menudo on Sunday is not enough to change capital. Eating menudo alone does not define a culture. “For oppressed peoples, cultural memory engenders the spirit of resistance…”

We have to come to grips with the fact that food is no longer a community enterprise. Pizza parlors are no longer Italian, most sushi bars are Korean and Chipotle is corporate owned.

In prison they tried to take Antonio Gramsci’s memory from him. During his long incarceration he was not allowed to read communist books, but Gramsci remembered.

Our university campuses are marketplaces, but they want to pretend they are the custodians of the truth. The present managers were not around during past struggles such as for minority access. They therefore rewrite history to justify the present purposely hiding diversity statistics that would upset their view of a racially balanced university.

If the statistics do not exist, the need for change does not exist. Like in the case of urban renewal, the objective is growth that allows larger administrative salaries, larger staffs, and bigger buildings that are then named after donors – again they are messing with memory.

The managers refine and define the product without any thought of the consumer whose financial burden increases. In order to accomplish a sense of community is erased.

Like in the case of Gramsci or a computer disk our memories have to be wiped clean. The narrative changed and the bonds that bind us to our community erased. In the new narrative, the ruling elite become the benefactors and those who made past sacrifices are forgotten.

Thus consumers do not bond with the past, and they do not recognize the trust they have to help those from the communities that they came from. Thus their ability to fight back is weakened and the uprooted feel beholding to the developers.

Meanwhile, their communities are being gentrified, bought up by hedge funds, bulldozed, leaving only the ashes behind.