Saturday, June 27, 2009

What’s in a name?

The letter comes like most of our letters to the editor still do, via snail mail. It’s signed, has a local return address. Good. We don’t publish unsigned letters, and rarely publish those sent from outside our readership area.

Angela opens it, but I take it out of her hands before she gets to read it – I have a small space to fill on the editorial page and if the letter is short enough, or readily edited without sacrificing its essence, I can lay it out and call the page done.

As I scan the first couple of sentences I’m hopeful.

Its impetus, the writer says upfront, is a column that appeared several weeks ago on the bilingual page of the paper, written by Moises Sandoval, a veteran editor, writer and Catholic News Service columnist.

If it’s criticism, I think to myself before continuing to read it, at least I won’t have to console any of the local columnists I’ve encouraged-cajoled-bullied into writing for us. Sandoval’s probably a lot tougher than my guys, I think. He can take it.

Turns out, I’m the one who can’t take it.

The writer is disturbed about the Church’s insistence on humane treatment for “illegals” and tired of the U.S. Bishops’ calls for comprehensive reform of existing immigration laws. That’s disheartening, but not completely unexpected. The results of the poll currently up at the Catholic Standard & Times web site’s homepage ( indicates that a large number of our readers feel similarly, if perhaps not quite so strongly.

But the letter goes downhill from there. It is evident from the statistics quoted in it that the writer uses illegal as a synonym for Latino. And later in the letter, the people crossing into the nation from the southern border are assigned other epithets: Criminals. Leeches. Parasites.

When I hand the letter back to Angela, I am uncharacteristically subdued.

“Don’t people get that we all bleed the same color?” she says after she reads it.

Angela is African American and Native American and I know she doesn’t expect an answer to her question.

“Have you ever seen ‘Stardust?’” I ask after a moment, seeking refuge in non sequitur. “You know, the movie based on the novel by Neil Gaiman?”

She nods.

“Remember how when the prince’s throat is cut, he bleeds blue instead of red?”

We laugh together at the visual pun, then go back to the unending stream of tasks necessary to ensure that a newspaper goes to press on time.

I should probably confess at this point that I have an abiding love of fairy-tales and folktales. I admire the way these stories work – flights of fancy that nevertheless hold real insights. So it’s no surprise that my mind has flown straight from that letter to the editor to a filmed fairy-tale like “Stardust.” Many fantastical stories have as a central conceit the theft, discovery or bestowal of a name. Remember Rumpelstiltskin?

But it’s not only in fairy-tales where names mean something.

When we strip people of their human dignity, we take their names along with it. It allows us to think of people as some collective other. They become “illegals and criminals.” Or “leeches and parasites.” Not made of the same flesh, bone and blood as we are. Not prey to the same worries and needs; not filled by the same joys.

This week the 18-year-old who put a noose around Robert Cantu’s neck, dragged him behind a pick-up truck and threatened to hang him in the town square while yelling “spic” and “border jumper” at the teen, pled no contest to charges of ethnic intimidation (he was sentenced to 10 days in an Ohio jail). The killers of Marcelo Lucero, José Sucuzhañay and Luis Ramirez all attacked their victims as representatives of some fearsome, collective “other” – Hispanic, undocumented, gay.

We’re seeing this unnaming play out in Iran as well.

Governments can be good at turning human beings into a collective “other” to be subdued or jailed or exiled or eliminated. I am reminded of Central America during the bloody, undeclared civil wars of the 1980s – and of how, even beyond those who lost their lives, hundreds of thousands lost their names.

Ah, but then, as in my beloved fairy-tales, something quite unexpected happens.

El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero reads the names of the dead during broadcasts on the Catholic radio station. The day the first civilian president of Guatemala is elected after 30 years of military rule, thousands gather at a silent protest holding up placards with the names of the disappeared. At prayer vigils, neighbors and family read out the names of the 137 victims of homicide in Philadelphia this year. And perhaps most spectacularly – despite the jailing of Iranian journalists (33 to date according to Reporters without Borders) and despite controls on every major form of information dissemination – we all learn Neda Soltan’s name.

At the end of the workday in which I read the letter to the editor, I’m still thinking about names, the words that are substituted for names, and the way a name – given even one person to hold it higher than fear, higher than circumstance – can help us remember our shared humanity.

We all bleed, Angela says. We all hope, I say.

On the way in to the train station I see three homeless people who regularly sit at the entrance I favor. They ask, unobtrusively, for money. Unbidden, a line from Isaiah 49 pushes its way into my thoughts: “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb He gave me my name.”

I’ve never asked their names.

I’m not so different from the letter writer who precipitated this blog post.

I rummage around for change, then drop the coins into their separate cups as I ask.

Cathy smiles when she tells me.

Earl stammers through his beard.

Poor Boy explains that his is a nickname his mother gave him as a boy, but that it doesn’t mean they were poor.

Next time, I’ll remember.

Photo of immigration rally CS&T file photo. Rumpelstiltskin engraving by Anne Anderson from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of homeless person by Sarah Webb for the CS&T.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Changing history in Iran

News is unfolding in Iran minute by minute, image by image, often in 140-word chunks of redaction.

News always unfolds minute-by-minute for those of us in the news business, no matter what sort of news organization we work for — large or small, name or no-name, mainstream or niche. But there is no getting around it — there is a revolutionary aspect to the way this particular news story has unfolded.

While I am very interested in understanding the complexities of the electoral results in Iran, the ensuing protests and counter-protests and the political implications of both — that isn’t the part I’m calling revolutionary.

The revolution I’m speaking about has as its marker the sheer number of Iranian voices we are hearing telling this story — thanks to the border-busting nature of new media, cell phones with photo capabilities, and social networking sites such as twitter and facebook.

By now most of us have heard reports that there have been attempts to shut down access to internet servers in Iran and to block sites like twitter precisely to prevent the voices and images from reaching anyone outside of Iran. But people there are finding ways to get around the restrictions using applications that access twitter without having to link directly to the site, or using internet proxies outside of Iran, or snapping photos with their phones.

Regardless of the specific political ramifications these actions may have, this type of first-person reporting is changing the way history has been written until now.

Think about it.

Efforts to control or restrict information — or to limit which voices get heard and which images get seen across borders — have slammed up against a chaotic force: technology. The proliferation of technology such as cell phones with cameras — pesky or silly seeming on an ordinary day — levels playing fields on extraordinary days. Technology enables every one of us to become a stringer and to globalize a local news story. Technology creates dialogue where, before, monologue would have ruled.

Stunning. At least potentially.

We’re not quite there yet. Access to twitter, blogging and other forms of citizen journalism shared via the internet, as well as mobile phones and digital photo capability is still limited to those of us with the money, the education, the gadgetry required.

All of which has an impact on whose voices get heard.

But for today, I am simply marveling at the promise.

I’ve written before in this blog about how news reported without the ordinary voices of those most impacted events can turn silence into a weapon (see “Silence and voice” post of May 31).

Who would have thought that twitter, of all things, could be a way to challenge that?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Draconian measures in Arizona

Shocking bill proposed in Arizona (itals are mine):

PHOENIX — The state moved on two fronts Tuesday to prohibit politicians and appointed agency chiefs from blocking law enforcement officers from enforcing immigration laws.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 8-3 to outlaw any policies that keep any public employee from contacting federal immigration officials to determine whether someone with whom they are dealing is in this country legally.

That would include not just people stopped by police, but anyone who enters a government building applying for a benefit, service or license where being a legal resident is a condition.

And to make sure SB 1162 had some real teeth, Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, included a provision allowing anyone who believes a public official is ignoring the law to sue.

Fi2W (Feet in 2 Worlds) blog has this: about the proposed legislation.

Ideology of hate

It is unusual for me to post twice in less than 24 hours ...

The tragedy yesterday at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. draws to the fore something the Southern Poverty Law Center has been writing about for the past year: the resurgence of hate groups and the proliferation of old and new hate-filled ideologies in our nation.

Here is their Hatewatch blog post on the shooting yesterday:,
For a map of hate groups active currently in the U.S. go here and to add your name to those who stand against hate or to report a hate crime go here.

It's on us, folks - let's make a difference.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

There are walls ... and then there are walls

The Wonders of Radio mural
43rd & Locust Street

You can't go too far in Philadelphia without chancing upon a wall with a mural. Some of them are spectacular, others whimsical - all of them surprise and delight.

The one pictured at the top of this blog post, "The Wonders of Radio" - is a partnership between radio station WXPN and the Mural Arts Program.
In February, the Catholic Standard & Times contributing writer Arlene Edmonds wrote about students from St. Francis de Sales school who worked on this mural (although the CS&T article is not archived online, read Edmonds' similar piece in the Philadelphia Tribune by clicking here). As with so many of the Mural Arts Program projects, this one brought together professional artists, amateurs, children, members of business and non-profit organizations. The result of the collaboration adds color, life and pride of place to the city.

Be a part of the experience: "The Wonders of Radio" will be officially unveiled and dedicated
at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 13 at 43rd and Locust Streets. Students from the five schools that participated in the project (St. Francis de Sales, John Hancock, Penn Alexander, Greene Street Friends and Alexander Wilson schools) will be in attendance, as will be local musicians and the host of WXPN's Kids Corner program.

My favorite city murals? The one at Hahnemann Hospital, pictured above, the Patti LaBelle mural on Mantua (not far from the zoo) and a mural on the expressway - for which I have so far been unable to locate a title - which enlivened my daily commute for the past four years. Alas, I have no photos to post of the latter two - but take it as a challenge to explore and see them in person. Click here for a printable pdf of a walking tour of murals in Center City .

A no less memorable, but much less pleasant wall is also in the news.

The Associated Press reported today that completion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall is in limbo until a U.S. District judge gets answers to private property concerns expressed by landowners in Brownsville, Texas (read the AP report here).

Photographer Tomas Castelazo has taken some evocative photos of the border wall (here and here and here). Funny how the human impulse to beautify finds expression even here - in Castelazo's example of the colorful and heartwrenching coffins placed on the wall as markers for those who have died trying to cross into the United States.

The promise of a better life always draws, no matter the danger. I am old enough to remember the wall between East and West Berlin, and to have heard the stories of flight across it - people driven by desperation or promise. They often ended the same way the crossings at our border do: deportation, detention, even death.

I watched the Berlin wall come down on TV, during a cocktail party, in the company of a filmmaker, actors, a poet. We watched instead of drinking or eating or socializing. We watched what we had never expected to see in our lifetimes - the wall pulled apart stone by stone by people who no longer wanted to be defined by it or what it represented. We watched silently because words would have called tears and tears would have admitted hope and hope is the province of the poor, the unsophisticated, the desperate. Isn't it?

Hope is what leads people over and under and around walls.

And still, in St. Paul's words to the Romans: In hope we were saved.

I hope I live long enough to see another wall come down.

I hope.