Behind the Latino appreciation for Anthony Bourdain

Notes, photographs and flowers are left in memory of Anthony Bourdain at the closed location of Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain used to work as the executive chef, Friday in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Among the many tributes and condolences pouring in for Anthony Bourdain, Scott Kelly’s surely came from the rarefied heights. The retired astronaut tweeted that he watched the master storyteller’s shows from space because they pulled him closer to humanity.

“It made me feel more connected to the planet, its people and cultures and made my time there more palatable,” he said.

From his heavenly vantage point in space, Kelly said, Bourdain inspired him “to see the world up close.”

When we struggled to make sense of a world where difference is not tolerated but vilified, Bourdain, a hero of curiosity, someone said, taught us that the unknown was something to embrace and enjoy. Adventure was his muse. Sharing a meal and a drink was a means to connect and to discover we have more in common than we might think.

His travels around the globe, he said, had enriched him by showing him how other people live. “How hard their lives are, how big the world is,” he told CBS in a recent interview.

Bourdain was a champion of the marginalized. If you’re Mexican-American or Mexican or Latino – or even if you’re not – you have seen and heard accolades for his eloquent and irreverent public defense of Mexican immigrants and his appreciation for Mexican culture that reached broadly beyond just its cuisine.

In a famous 2014 essay that’s been shared widely in Latino circles, he wrote:

“As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy — the restaurant business as we know it — in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are ‘stealing American jobs.’ But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had one American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position — or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do.”

Bourdain said he was grateful for the skilled Mexican cooks and kitchen workers who toiled in obscurity but were generous just the same, showing the new, celebrated chef the ropes, imparting the knowledge they had worked long and hard to acquire.

“In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there — and on the case — when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine — ran away to go skiing or surfing — or simply ‘flaked.’”

The Mexican workers Bourdain stood up for get a raw deal. Working diligently in back kitchens and behind the scenes, but unappreciated, they are unwittingly yanked into the spotlight when their people are vilified as “criminals” and “rapists” overrunning our border, flooding our cities with drugs, taking jobs from Americans. In that narrative, they become something less than the rest of us.

Oh, and about those drugs, Bourdain wrote: “We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but ‘we’ as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them — and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them … In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs — while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us.”

In daring to call out American hypocrisy over illegal immigration, Bourdain spoke bravely and with unflinching honesty, as much or more than any other American celebrity. The double standard is that this is a country that puts out the hiring sign to employ millions of unauthorized workers, yet spends billions to keep them out. To call that out is to risk self-inflicted wounds from the likes of those who cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Bourdain surely knew the risk — and was a willful defender of the immigrant workers he came to know.

Yes, that is why after learning of Bourdain’s death, some Latinos gravitated to social media to express their admiration for Bourdain, who dared to confront stereotypes and rhetorical talking points to present human beings and immigrant workers in a different light — with dignity.

 

Yes, we speak English in America – and 350 other languages too

Lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, center, who ranted against people speaking Spanish in a Midtown restaurant, takes a cellphone video of reporters taking his video as he leaves his home in New York on May 17. (Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News/TNS)

Speaking Spanish – something 40 million Americans do – is all over the news.

When a Manhattan man went on a racially charged rant last week after hearing restaurant employees speaking Spanish, he said repeatedly, “It’s America.”

You get the message — ‘This is America, we speak English here.’

He’s right, of course, we do speak English in America, but that’s not all — we also speak over 350 different languages at home, according to a census report. Indeed, more than 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, the 2015 report found.

We are a nation of immigrants, after all.

True, most Americans speak only English at home or a few other languages like Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese. Still, the data reveals the breathtaking range of language diversity in the U.S., the census said.

Take New York City, where the xenophobic meltdown occurred and where more than 1 in 3 metro area residents speak a language other than English. More than 200 languages are spoken by the 8.6 million people who live there, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.

“They’re all New Yorkers and they’re all welcome here,” he said.

As the nation goes, so goes Austin, where se habla Español. About 358,000 people age 5 and over – out of a total metro area population of 1.65 million — speak Spanish at home. In all, slightly more than 27 percent of Austin metro area residents spoke a language other than English. After Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese topped the list of other languages spoken here.

Spanish was tops as well among the other 350 languages spoken in the U.S., according to the census, which gleaned data collected from 2009 to 2013.

Other top languages spoken, in order of ranking, were:

Chinese

Tagalog

Vietnamese

French (including Patois and Cajun)

Korean

German

Arabic languages.

Spanish vaulted into the national consciousness again the other day when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two women, both U.S. citizens, in Montana simply for speaking Spanish. Caught on video, the incident went viral on social media.

“Speaking Spanish is very unheard of up here,” the agent told the women, attempting to explain why he stopped them but neglecting to state the obvious – speaking Spanish is not a crime.

He’s right that in Montana seldom is heard a Spanish word. In the entire state – its 1.05 million population is hardly bigger than the city of Austin’s — only about 1.5 percent of residents speak Spanish.

The irony? Montana is literally Spanish, coming from the word montaña, which means mountain.

Why the ‘hyphenated Americanism’ comment triggered outrage

People rally in front of the State Board of Education building last week before a preliminary vote on whether to create a statewide Mexican American studies course. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more.

“Discrimination!” Marisa Perez-Diaz, a member of the board, said in a blistering statement that captured the outrage of critics.

Perez-Diaz, a Democrat from Converse who is Mexican-American, was angry that the course will not be called Mexican-American Studies, as scholars and activists had advocated. Instead, after the objections of one member, the Republican-dominated board voted to strip the name and call the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”

The board member who proposed the new name, Beaumont Republican David Bradley, offered this explanation: “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”

To understand why some Texans consider that statement and the name change a slap in the face is to understand the history of Texas and how it has treated Mexican-Americans as something less than American – not as equals. It is a painful and shameful history that includes loss of rightful lands after the Mexican-American War, Jim Crow laws and systematic discrimination, separate and unequal schools, lynchings, deportations of Mexican-American citizens without due process, bigotry and signs at restaurants, parks, swimming pools and public places that told Mexican Americans they most certainly were not welcome there.

“No dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans,” the signs of Jim Crow-era segregation said.

Even in death, Mexican-Americans were not equals. In some Texas towns they were buried in separate cemeteries, as were African Americans.

But you won’t read much of that sordid history in high school classrooms in Texas, if at all. The historical Mexican-American experience is whitewashed and airbrushed out of textbooks and out of young Texans’ minds.

“To say that one does not believe in hyphenated Americans is one of the reasons we need this course,” Richard Flores, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Because this entire Mexican-American community was not accepted into the American way of life.”

Flores wrote the book, “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol,” which tells a history of the famous battle that is different from the conventional narrative taught in Texas classrooms – that brave Anglos defeated savage Mexicans there. But as Flores’ book conveys, they were not alone — Tejanos, or Mexican-Americans, fought alongside those Anglos.

Throughout history, Mexican-Americans have been called all kinds of hateful epithets. Wetbacks, greasers, beaners, cockroaches, spics – these are some. The word “Mexican” also has historically been used as a slur — President Trump did in 2016 against a U.S. district judge.

To some, stripping the Mexican-American name from the high school course is another attempt to put Mexican-Americans in their place and to dictate their identity, a throwback – setback — to the 1940s and 1950s in Texas.

Angela Valenzuela, another Mexican-American studies scholar at UT who championed the new curriculum, said she would not want her name associated with it under its new name. Her mother would never forgive her, she said, because it harkens back to Jim Crow and the scars it left.

“My mother told us (an American of Mexican descent) is what I was,” she told me. “That was all we were allowed to be then because it was Americanization full throttle.”

Noting that Latinos make up 52 percent of school-age children in Texas – the vast majority Mexican American — Valenzuela said the education board sees Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a threat.

We don’t need a Mexican-American studies course only for its value in setting the historical record straight. We need it because it can highlight Mexican-American historical contributions too and affirm Mexican-Americans’ place as valued contributors to society.

“Without our stories, the message to young people is ‘We weren’t here, we weren’t important and we are not important,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Voces Oral History Project at UT, which highlights the WWII contributions of Mexican-Americans who served their country, despite facing rampant discrimination at home.

Bradley, meanwhile, was not in a conciliatory mood. He reportedly said Perez-Diaz was taking the name change personally and that opponents were “antagonizing the board,” actions that could have repercussions on the viability of the course.

Given Texas’ history, it’s easy to see how some might view that as threatening.

“We’re all Americans,” Bradley told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a melting pot and most of the board agreed with that.”

The irony of Bradley’s statement is that in the land that was Mexico long before Texas became a state, in the face of historical bigotry and discrimination, Mexican-Americans have wanted nothing more than to stake their full and rightful claim as Americans. As equals. Though we might not see it reflected in our textbooks, history teaches us this.

 

 

 

Why adding a citizenship question on the census should concern you

The news that the Trump administration plans to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census is triggering outrage and pushback from Washington to Austin, starting the clock on what surely will be drawn-out legal and political battles across the country. California has filed a legal challenge and other states – but not Texas – are threatening to sue.

RELATED: Citizenship question will hurt Texas, Democrats say

Some critics see malevolent motives in the change, accusing the administration of trying to hurt immigrants, Latinos and Democrats.

“I can guarantee you this will have a chilling effect (on census response) and that’s what the administration wants,” said City Council Member Greg Casar, who represents District 4 in North Austin, which he said has one of the city’s highest immigrant populations and is already undercounted by the census.

Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities,  said the citizenship question is designed to drive down Latino participation in the census, which is mandated by the Constitution.

Asking about citizenship status “is an ill-conceived scare tactic,” she said in a statement.

Immigrant advocates like the group America’s Voice likened the change to the second blow of a one-two punch, the first being the implementation of SB 4 in Texas. Asking about citizenship, they said, will further drive immigrant families into the shadows.

Why all the fuss over a simple question, you might be asking? And if I’m a citizen, why should I care anyway? Simply put, the answer is because the census is a big deal and the results affect us all.

The federal government uses the decennial count for redrawing boundaries, such as for House seats and City Council districts, and for deciding the number of representatives each state gets in Congress, for example. Texas has 36 congressional seats and it’s speculated the state might gain seats after the new census count. How many will be determined by the count.

“If you don’t get counted, you are given less representation at the political level,” Casar told me. About 1 in 3 residents in District 4 are immigrants and over 2 in 3 are renters, he said.

“Census officials will tell you that if your first language is not English, if you have lower levels of education, if you’re a person of color and if you move frequently, those are all factors that lead to undercounting,” Casar said.

Moreover, the government uses census results to decide how to distribute $675 billion in federal monies to cities and states, city of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson told me. That’s money for everything from highways to Head Start to mental health support services to programs for the elderly, to name just a few.

“This affects the size of your child’s classroom, Pell grants, food stamps, the level of services a community gets,” added Casar.

RELATED: What you need to know about the census’ citizenship question 

Like other big cities across the country, Austin wants to get its fair slice of that federal pot. Doing so requires getting a full and accurate census count. But Robinson, who is the city’s liaison for the national census, and others worry that the citizenship question will scare immigrants, including those who are here legally, from answering the census questionnaire, leading to an undercount and resulting in less money for Austin.

“It’s going to be harder to get a good count (of immigrants),” Robinson said. “Even before adding the citizenship question, it was already difficult … It goes back to this notion of fear, trust and cultural differences.”

While most Americans might consider the census a nuisance at worst, for immigrants and refugees, a representative of the federal government knocking at the door can send fear throughout the household, Robinson said.

Even immigrants who are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally might balk at answering the census because some members of their family might not have legal status, critics say.

According to Robinson, about 18 percent of the city of Austin’s population is foreign-born, a number that includes citizens and immigrants here legally. That translates to about 180,000 people. About 320,000 people living in the wider Austin metro area are foreign-born.

About one out of six Texas residents was born in a foreign country, according to the state demographer’s website. In 2014, Texas’ 4.5 million foreign-born population tied New York for the second-largest state immigrant population by size, according to the Pew Research Center. Texas stands to gain in a big way if those millions are counted.

Do the math – immigrants are woven into the fabric of our lives and our society. If a considerable number of those immigrants are fearful of the citizenship question and don’t answer the census, the consequences could harm Austin and Texas, answering the question, “Why should I care?”

 

Pelosi: NeverAgain is the new MeToo

Students take part in a “lie-in” on the road outside of the White House on Monday to protest the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last week. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Count U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi among Americans who think there is something dramatically different – maybe even life-changing – in the aftermath of the latest in the long string of deadly mass shootings at our nation’s schools. This time, our children are the grown-ups in the debate over gun control and they are driving the discussion.

“I think this has the MeToo effect,” the California Democrat told me Monday during a visit to the newspaper with the editorial board and others. “You know how the MeToo movement just changed (how we talk about sexual) harassment?”

The massacre in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 people at a high school there on Valentine’s Day isn’t fading from the headlines. That’s what usually happens after these mass slaughters. Our grief and outrage, our sound and fury, eventually give way to yawning silence and inaction. We’re frustrated nothing is done. Then the next mass shooting comes along.

But not this time. Not so far.

That’s because the young survivors from Parkland who witnessed their classmates and teachers die aren’t letting this story go away. They’ve struck a serve with Americans who are also fed up that Congress hasn’t taken up gun-control legislation. Don’t offer me your thoughts and prayers, the young students are imploring; do something instead.

“Oh, my God, what they’ve been through, turning their grief, their anger into something that will save lives,” Pelosi said Monday.

The students are channeling their anger into activism, taking it to the streets, planning marches and school walkouts in Austin and across the country, stepping up the pressure on President Trump and lawmakers to pass gun control laws, calling out those who take money from the National Rifle Association. They plan a national day of action against gun violence on April 20. On Monday, some students staged a “die-in” in front of the White House.

Pelosi said she understands the students’ frustration. “How many times do you hear, ‘Oh, now is not the time to talk about gun policy,’” she said.

Pelosi said gun control advocates in the House have the votes, including support from Republican co-sponsors, to pass measures today to prevent gun violence. “We would win the background check bill,” she said. There is House support as well, she said, for removing a prohibition on the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence prevention.

And there’s another thing lawmakers could do, Pelosi added. House Speaker Paul Ryan could convene a select committee to study gun control. He has not been bashful about calling committees on everything from Benghazi to planned parenthood, so why not gun control, she said.

“Now, should we have a ban on AK-47s, assault weapons and all of that? That’s part of a discussion, too,” Pelosi said. “Some people say absolutely, positively. Other people say let’s just get what we can before the NRA (weighs in.”

The young students who are the newest champions of gun control might not be afraid of a fight with the NRA. Some have called the contributions some lawmakers receive from the organization “blood money.”

Pelosi admires their courage and their tenacity.

“Your heart breaks for them and for what they’ve been through,” she said.

 

 

Trump: Border wall position unchanged. But can you spare $18 billion?

Hundreds of people, many of them Haitian, demonstrate against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, January 15, New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Trump is learning that the problem with asking U.S. taxpayers to pick up the $18 billion tab for his border wall is that they have long memories. Particularly when there’s money involved.

They remember when Trump promised ad nauseam at campaign rallies across the country in 2016 that Mexico would pay for a wall. Trump staked his bid for the presidency on it.

So, it’s natural for them to ask now, “What do you mean, you want us to pay for it?”

Faced with the reality that Mexico won’t pay – they were never going to – it should be embarrassing for the president to have his hand out in order to make good on a campaign promise he knew he couldn’t deliver. He should be more embarrassed that he is asking for border wall funding at the same time he’s playing political games with the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people known as Dreamers. These are the immigrants who came to this country illegally when they were children. Trump is insisting that a deal in Congress to avert a government shutdown and to extend legal protections for these young immigrants will only happen if lawmakers approve funding for his vision of a border wall.

Still, Trump isn’t giving up on the idea that Mexico will pay, no matter how preposterous that idea might seem. On Thursday, he tweeted:

“The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S. The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!”

Perhaps the president’s most ardent supporters will buy that sketchy “Don’t worry, Mexico will pay you back” promise, but most Americans won’t.

It’s important to note that most Americans don’t want a border wall, either, according to polling. And nearly nine in 10 Americans favor allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to a CBS News poll out today. DACA gives recipients work permits and protects them from deportation.

Dreamers shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions to bring them here in search of a better life — some were infants when they came. Nor should they be played for a political football.

The president can do the right thing and untether their fate from his condition for funding for a border wall, one that most Americans don’t want.

RELATED: A southern border wall is still Trump’s north star 

Trump tweeted more about the wall Thursday, taking the extraordinary step of contradicting his chief of staff by saying that his position on a border wall had not changed.

On Wednesday, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said Trump was not fully informed when he promised to build a wall last year. He said the president’s position had evolved.

Trump shot back on Twitter: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water…”

Bear in mind that the president promised over and over again in 2016 to build a wall spanning the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border. More recently he’s told lawmakers that a continuous wall won’t be needed after all because of natural barriers. The $18 billion he’s asking for now would pay for about 900 miles of wall.

That sure sounds like a stance that’s evolved. What gives?

Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month the president had “discovered” there are rivers, mountains and rugged terrain that aren’t conducive to building a wall in some locations.

Oh, that. That’s something Texans could have told the president a long time ago.

 

In Khizr Khan’s inspirational story, a mighty river flows

Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, speaks as his wife Ghazala listens at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.

In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.

 

 

We can’t let gun violence become the new norm

Texas weeps today.

In a small house of worship in a bucolic small town – one of those where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and that’s just fine – a gunman with a military-style rifle methodically opened fire Sunday morning. When he was done, 26 people lay lifeless inside a Baptist church. The dead ranged from 18 months to 77 years of age and included as many as 14 children and a pregnant woman, investigators said.

Rebecca Thompson of Santa Fe, Texas, prays at a memorial near the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Monday. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Lest we become numb to this kind of carnage, let that sink in for a moment. The victims had come to the sanctuary to pray and to worship. The gunman had come intent on slaughtering them.

The crime scene left even hardened law enforcement officers reeling. Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said officers found blood everywhere.

“Wherever you walked in the church, there was death,” Tackitt said.

Another horrific mass shooting in a string of massacres in America, this one hit closer to home, in Sutherland Springs southeast of San Antonio. The deadliest in Texas history, it came just 35 days after another massacre with a different dubious distinction — the deadliest mass shooting in American history. That one in Las Vegas left 58 people dead and hundreds wounded.

Law enforcement officials said Monday the gunman may have been motivated by “a domestic situation” and that his mother-in-law attended the church. In the coming days, investigators will seek to unravel answers to that and many other questions, like how the shooter was able to get a gun.

“By all the facts that we seem to know, he was not supposed to have access to a gun,” Gov. Greg Abbott told CNN. “So how did this happen?”

Texans, like all Americans, grieve for the victims and their families, and extend their condolences. All of us are trying to come to terms with such unspeakable horror. How could it happen in our own backyard?

“In God’s backyard,” a reader said on the New York Times’ website.

The website features a clock that is counting the number of hours, minutes and seconds since Sunday’s shooting. The Times’ editorial board is calling for Congress to act on gun control.

But it is “mental health,” not guns, that is behind the Texas mass shooting, President Trump said Sunday in Tokyo, calling the shooter “deranged.”

“I think mental health is the problem here. This isn’t a guns situation,” Trump said.

In proclaiming that a massacre carried out with an assault weapon capable of unleashing lethal damage in seconds, is not about guns, Trump seemed to wish to silence any talk about gun control. His words had an element of misdirection, too – the gunman may have had mental issues, but that does not alter the fact that he used a military-style weapon to kill innocent people.

The president’s reaction is something we’ve become used to seeing after each new mass shooting. Gun advocates, including many of our elected officials, are quick to admonish that it’s not the time to talk about gun control.

But when then?

Offering sympathies and prayers to the victims of these massacres, however well-intentioned, is not nearly enough. Not anymore. Not when deadly mass shootings occur with frightening regularity.

A church should always be a safe space, but the tragedy is that these massacres do indeed happen in our own backyards. This was not the first in a house of worship. They occur in movie theaters, at outdoor music concerts and at elementary schools.

Since a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in 2016 left 49 dead and many wounded, at least 639 people have been killed and more than 2,600 have been injured in mass shootings, according to the New York Times.

Regardless where you may stand on gun control, it is long past time to have a national conversation about how to prevent more massacres. And it is time for our elected officials to have the courage to lead.

The dead in Sutherland included mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They included wide-eyed young children who will never again kiss their parents goodnight. Among the lasting images described by investigators is of the bodies of parents covering their children’s bodies; they had tried vainly to shield them from harm.

Texas is heartbroken today, but we can turn our anguish into action if we demand our elected leaders address gun violence. If we do nothing, we risk more senseless and heinous slaughter.

 

No kidding, Austin tax bills are squeezing some out

Many longtime Austin homeowners move to outlying areas, including Buda, to seek property tax relief. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

If you were in denial or, better for you, were blissfully oblivious to the reality that the tax squeeze is choking many Austin families, a report in Sunday’s American-Statesman laid that truth bare for all to see. Not that many of us didn’t already know.

Just like you can bank on old-timers grousing about Austin turning into a metropolis they hardly recognize anymore, you can count on your property tax bills rising year after year. The tax bite is forcing many Austin homeowners to seek relief elsewhere, and to pack up and move to outlying cities like Buda that are more tax-friendly to family pocketbooks.

Those decisions aren’t easy, especially when you consider that children are affected, as the report by Melissa B. Taboada, Mary Huber and Claire Osborn pointed out.

“We were trying to hold on to living in Southwest Austin where our kids were being raised. It became too much,” said Barbara Johnson, who saw her property taxes creep up over the years. Her family moved from Circle C in Southwest Austin to Buda, where their tax bill is estimated to be $3,000 less.

If there’s a boomtown in America with the “it factor,” it’s Austin. Construction cranes fill the city skyline, building the newest high-rise that will become the next shimmering luxury condo complex or hotel or office tower. Already among the fastest-growing cities in the country, Austin is considered a worthy suitor for Amazon HQ2 and its 50,000 employees. The city makes all the national “best” lists, and visitors flock here from all over. Many don’t leave. Signature homegrown events like ACL and South By Southwest are hot tickets across the country, adding to Austin’s swagger.

But there’s a flip side to all that sheen, one Austin Mayor Steve Adler addressed during his 2014 election campaign. His stump speech staple invoked “the tipping point,” the idea that the city had reached the cusp of a status quo it could no longer afford to follow.

The message, of course, was that Austin needed new leadership, but it went deeper than that. Adler mused too about the danger of Austin becoming two cities, one of haves and have nots. Continuing with the status quo, he said, risked widening that divide.

RELATED: Latinos had income gains but not all the news is rosy

Many Austinites can relate. As their home property values rise – and wages don’t keep up — they are being priced out of those very homes. And it’s happening across the city, in affluent neighborhoods and in working-class enclaves. Flight to the suburbs doesn’t always offer immunity, either. There are growing signs that property tax bills are rising there too.

It’s not surprising then that some residents grumble that Austin is becoming a playground for the wealthy.

A painful irony: property taxes are high here and real estate prices are soaring, but Austin is a steal for people from California and other parts of the country where real estate prices are sky-high.

For those who live here already, a different story. Just in the last five years, the average home value in Austin has risen $80,000 to $343,000, and the property tax bill has surged 21 percent. The tax bill on an average value home is now $7,600 a year, an increase of $517 over last year.

Finding a silver lining in all of this is like finding an Austinite who was born and raised here. Good luck.

But more people are talking about surging property tax bills, and there may lie the key to change. Training a spotlight on the growing cost of living in Austin is good. So is holding elected officials accountable and demanding they hit the brakes on rising taxes.

It won’t be easy. Not when state and local taxing entities heavily rely on property tax revenue to pay for schools and local services. Indeed, the biggest bite of your property tax bill goes to pay for schools.

It won’t be easy, either, when the blame is thrown around in crisscross  directions. Overhauling the school finance system is the only solution, some argue. But some conservative lawmakers say it’s the school districts that need to curb spending. The local school districts, however, say they could do more with their revenue if they didn’t have to help subsidize property-poor districts under the school finance system. And local taxing entities frequently tell you they’re trying to offer relief by reducing their tax rates even as they rake in more of your tax money.

Taxpayers are too savvy for that misdirection now. Lower tax rates don’t mean a thing if soaring property values raise your tax bill. Those who can’t afford to live in Austin anymore will attest.

No, the status quo isn’t good enough anymore. But at least we’re talking about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Latinos had income gains, but not all the news is rosy

Bladimira Martinez takes notes while her daughter and business associate, Yessenia Ramirez, conducts business in Pflugerville last month. Martinez recently started her own cleaning company after years of working for others at or near minimum wage. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.

Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.

RELATED: Why Austin-area Latinos saw a big boost in household incomes

Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.

Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.

Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.

But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.

In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.

“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.

Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.

Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.

RELATED: The promise and the challenge of the Latino job puzzle

But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.

The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.

A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.

CASTILLO: A new giving network answers why Latinos need a hand

While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.

Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.

And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).

And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.

It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.

For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.

“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.

In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.