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.

 

 

 

Rainey bar incident reminds us hate lurks, even in Austin

Hate has no place in Austin. It has no place anywhere.

Yet we know it lurks and it simmers, boiling until it explodes, jolting us out of our comfort zones, letting us know in no uncertain terms again that it is there, always there.

We were reminded of this again this week when reports surfaced about racially charged and sexist social media posts allegedly coming from the accounts of a Rainey Street bar. Patrons also complained about anti-Semitic imagery.

Unbarlievable on Rainey Street. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

On Wednesday Brandon Cash, the owner of Unbarlievable, apologized for what he called his “intolerable actions,” issuing this statement:

“To those who I have hurt and offended, I am deeply sorry. My words and actions were wrong, inappropriate and inexcusable. They certainly don’t exemplify the values of a community that I love and care deeply about and my insensitive actions do not represent the views of my loyal and dedicated employees.”

One hopes Cash’s apology is sincere.

Earlier, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said it is investigating Unbarlievable over an unspecified incident in March involving language and imagery, KVUE reported.

I’ve heard some say that this proves to us once more that racism is alive in Austin, a city that would like to think it is an exceptional model of tolerance. But we’ve known this for a long time; we don’t need to be reminded again.

Yet, for all the handwringing we do about what incidents like this say about Austin, we should remember that for the most part, our city is a place that welcomes the stranger and the person who might not look like us or vote like us or worship in the same place we do. For every instance of the kind of thing that happened at a Rainey Street bar, there’s more examples of tolerance we can hold up, like the congregations of many denominations across Austin who consistently stand by efforts to bring undocumented immigrants into society.

We can’t begin to understand what goes on in the minds of those who believe they are innately endowed with superiority based simply on the color of their skin, or on their national heritage or their religion, their money or anything else. Our nation holds central the right of free speech, but we also have the right to call out hate and intolerance. Those who took to social media, news conferences and protests this week were right to do so. We should send messages to our community and to our children that we uphold and cherish tolerance and civility.

We should not forget either that the intolerant messages emanated from Rainey Street, for decades a peaceful, working-class Mexican American neighborhood. Now it is one of the city’s busiest entertainment districts, oddly located alongside one of Austin’s cultural jewels, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

The center and the old Chicano barrio were there first, and to many long-time Mexican Americans here, Rainey Street has become a symbol of gentrification, consistent with 1920s city decisions that pushed minority communities east of the highway. Now many older Latino families there are having to move out because they can’t afford East Austin’s soaring property values, propelled by the arrival of new wealth, new condos, new bars and restaurants.

I heard one local radio host say this week that there are greater things to be offended about, and he’s right — there’s a lot in this world that should have us hanging our heads. But we don’t get to be the arbiters of what offends others.

Among the vile images that allegedly surfaced this week was a photo making light at the expense of a Latina toddler selling gum, her eyes brimming with hope. Innocent children can’t begin to comprehend the plight of their circumstances and the depths of poverty that places them on a street corner, trying to eke out a few pennies for their families. You’ll have to understand how an image like that might throw hot water on open wounds.