Op-Ed

A Chicano in Prague

Oppression: Whether communist, fascist or economic, the power to degrade people’s lives speaks the same language.

Los Angeles Times

August 30, 1996|EMMANUEL BURGIN | Emmanuel Burgin is a contributing writer to El Sol de San Diego newspaper. He recently returned to San Diego from Prague where he completed his first novel and began research on a second.

 

PRAGUE — Am I the first Chicano in Prague? Rudolfo Anaya, the esteemed Chicano writer, can lay claim to being the first Chicano to travel to China. It’s from “A Chicano in China,” his journal of that journey, that I derive my title.

Although it would be an accomplishment, something to tell the grandkids, I doubt that I am the first Chicano in Prague; we travel everywhere now, borders never having grasped our imagination, akin, perhaps, to the Native Americans’ inability to conceptualize the owning of Mother Earth.

My sojourn here to live among the people has been twofold: that I may begin to understand the effects an oppressive communist regime has had on its people and to witness the struggle to Westernize in the face of the tidal wave called the global economy.

In so doing, I hope to better understand the intolerant attitudes that sometimes rear their ugly heads in my country. In California, oppression of rights, the plague of the downtrodden, has joined with economic struggle and taken a place at the kitchen table of the immigrant and working poor. The battle to retain rights granted by the Constitution, compounded by the historical economic struggle that all immigrants have known has created a crucible in which something volatile is brewing.

I was greatly alarmed and affected by Proposition 187. Not so much by the politics and the rhetoric of the politicians–after all, politics is a dirty business–but by the public’s prevalent eagerness and acceptance of this mean-spirited rhetoric.

There is always a deeper meaning behind the action. A wildfire needs grass, shrubs and trees to consume in order to move forward. I am alarmed at the deeper meaning of this acceptance: the insensitivity of a friend, the latent racism of a kindly neighbor.

Language that is designed to separate and abuse and spread fear, in other words, oppress, eventually settle comfortably into the laps of those whose ideas of what a good society should be are, those who are, in the extreme, racist and, to say the least, not very understanding of the multiethnic society that we are.

Dialogue of oppression can be wrapped in many colorful packages (economic stability, rights of citizens, unfair tax burdens, crime) but it is still the language of oppression, words that fan the flames of frustration, anger, hate and racism.

It is good to remember the words of Gyorgy Konrad, a leading Hungarian writer who as a child barely escaped Auschwitz, then the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Fascist party that wanted to shoot him and dump his body into the Danube.

“Intimidating or constraining or killing one’s fellow man for belonging to this or that group has become inimical to Europeans, despite their long history of racial, national and class hatred, or rather because they have learned from their history and finally realize that discrimination leads to murder.”

When our representatives try to pass legislation that will divide the people and discriminate against a segment of the population, we are in dangerous territory.

 

Escaping the mean streets

Growing up in Compton and Lynwood, he learned to be ever alert. Traveling in Europe for the first time, he learned to feel free.

Los Angeles Times

December 19, 2012|By Emmanuel Burgin

 

Growing up in Compton and later in Lynwood during the 1960s and ’70s, I learned way more about violence than a kid should know.

I lost a close childhood friend to a bullet, and I knew at least a dozen kids at school who never made it to adulthood. Most of them died from gunshots. I remember going to high school on Monday mornings and wondering who hadn’t made it through the weekend.

There were a lot of guns around. The gang members and criminals had them, and somelaw-abiding people had them too. My father, who grew up hunting in Oklahoma, slept with a gun under his pillow for protection after he moved to Compton. But that wasn’t what most of the guns in my neighborhood got used for.

I have tried to explain to friends what it was like — and how I’m sure it still is — walking the streets of Compton and Lynwood; I always had to be aware of my surroundings. I focused on who was coming toward me on either side of the street and looked over my shoulder frequently. I evaluated every passing car.

I didn’t learn until later in life how it felt to just go for a walk. No one just went for a walk in my neighborhood in those days.

In college, on a football scholarship, I fell in love with rugby. I played the game from the age of 18 until I was 33, playing the last 10 years with the Belmont Shore Rugby Club. In my last year, our coach was asked to take another team on a tour abroad, and he invited me to tag along. I decided to treat myself and go. It would be my first time outside the country other than a few road trips to Tijuana with college buddies.

As an inner-city kid, I was in awe of historic Europe; I saw the Louvre in Paris, walked past the Manneken Pis in Brussels, and sipped a beer in a public square in Luxembourg. And then we got to Amsterdam.

In the Dutch capital, our coach called us together in the lobby of the hotel to offer some last-minute advice before we headed out to see the sights. Amsterdam, he cautioned, was the wildest and most dangerous city in Europe, so we needed to be careful. We shouldn’t go out walking around by ourselves, staying in groups of at least two or three.

His concern for his players was genuine, and he went on and on about our safety. Meanwhile, my teammates and I were eager to hit the streets: There were beers to drink, songs to sing and girls to chase. We listened politely to his warnings until finally I raised my hand.

“Coach, are there any guns in this city?” I asked.

“No guns,” he replied. “Handguns are outlawed in most of Europe. It’s illegal to own one.”

“A city without guns?” I asked, getting to my feet. “I’m from Compton, coach. A knife or a bat I can outrun. I’m outta here.”

Everyone laughed and the tension lifted. I headed out the door and onto the streets of Amsterdam, and for the first time in my life I felt free.

 

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