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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: The Fruits of Our Labor: A Dialog Reviewing Marching in San Antonio
Reviewed by: Erica Frisicaro & Virginia Kuhn , elfrisicaro@stthomas.edu & vkuhn@uwm.edu
Posted on: April 8, 2004

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Virginia: “Kaity guess where we are? In the middle of a labor march. What does “Si Se Puede” mean?”  I held the slim silver cell phone out to the crowd so my daughter could hear them chanting Viva Cesar Chaves as Kaity informed me of the translation “Yes, we can.” My colleague, Erica, and I had just attended our last session and were basking in the luxury of having several hours to ourselves—a scarce commodity for a newly minted professor and a dissertating teacher/mother of two. We planned on finding an outdoor café where I could work and Erica could grade papers but instead found ourselves smack dab in the midst of this protest.  Ironically, we had just been speaking of last years’ C’s (which I had not been able to attend) and Erica pointed out that she had attended a panel in which the presenters left the stage in order to join the New York protests against the war. At this year’s event however, we had heard nothing about the local activism and so were thrilled to stumble upon it; I think that is why I wanted to call my daughter—I wanted to share this event with someone. I wanted to connect this event to my life somehow…

Erica: …and I wanted to see evidence of others from our community – those of us attending the conference – witnessing this event in the local community.  In recent years, our conference themes have so often stressed the connections between texts and communities – among our individual roles as teachers, our institutional roles as academics, and our political roles as citizens.  In Chicago, we were intent on “Connecting the Text and the Street;” in San Antonio, we focused on “Making Composition Matter” by speaking of the relationships between “Students, Citizens, Institutions, and Advocacy.”  Thus, to have stumbled upon this organized group of young people, community activists, advocates of social justice, and unionized workers seemed a way of taking what we had been talking about over the past four days and processing it, reflecting on our roles as compositionists, as teachers, and as members of the public.

Virginia & Erica: The march was an effective, peaceful display of combined democratic movements intent on the good of the people. It was multi-lingual and multi-modal, in that it combined English and Spanish, American traditions (such as the pledge of allegiance) and Mexican traditions (such as the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which led the procession), oratory, music, and silence.  Veterans marched among peace activists, students among teachers, cheerleaders and tumblers alongside civil servants and farmers.
Among the groups was the Southwest Workers’ Union who campaigned for a “living wage,” explaining that a family could exist on a wage of $11.46 per hour.  Many of the marchers wore tee-shirts declaring “Forget the Alamo” which was a fitting invective given that the Hollywood movie was premiering that evening just a few feet away from where we were standing.  The participants who marched in honor of Cesar Chavez chose to set their stage in front of the Alamo, a powerful historic reminder of cultural imperialism and, most recently, a site under the glare of the bright lights of Hollywood. Thus, this march not only reconstituted, but also reclaimed public spaces in a city known for its carefully engineered architecture and landscape.

Erica: At a recent lecture held on my campus, Mike Gonzales, a cultural studies scholar and specialist in Latin American studies from the University of Glasgow, spoke of the “mounting demand” for a change of worldview among academics, one that is intended to incorporate the voices of oppressed peoples and resistance movements within the whole of the culture.  Such a movement, he added, would need to incorporate three central principles: it would need to be “profoundly democratic” in its scope and function, in order to resist forces of economic, cultural, and intellectual imperialism; it would need to be polysemic and polyphonic, in order to resist the forces of linguistic or ideological dominance; and it would need to “reconstitute public space,” in order to ensure dialogue and cooperation among vast groups of global citizens with vastly different needs and desires.  What I found most striking about the event that Virginia and I witnessed was how effectively it demonstrated all three of these principles.

Virginia: The day before I left Milwaukee for San Antonio I received a call from the director of UWM’s Cultures & Communities Program, informing me that my application to teach Multicultural America, an interdisciplinary course which includes a service learning component, had been accepted. Although a faculty member and a lecturer would also teach a section of this class, my role would be to integrate a digital element with the traditional face to face meetings, transforming the course into a hybrid.  Finally, I thought, I can put my years of activism to work in a way that expands its scope by welcoming nontraditional students—those who must work all day and can only attend college part time in the evenings—and also by reaching out into the community and giving inner city school children who are, by and large, nonwhite, access to information about leaders like Cesar Chavez and the potential to forming coalitions for embarking upon acts of resistance such as that we were presently witnessing.

Erica: The marchers’ acts of solidarity seemed particularly effectual to me, as it shifted the entire sense of landscape and scale that I had been immersed in for the past several days.  Like a number of the conference goers, I spent a good deal of time on the Riverwalk before a former colleague and I began to talk of its more subtle properties: its lack of open spaces in which people might gather; its limited access points to the street; its absence of dark corners, odd angles, and blind alleys; its ability to channel individuals on a pathway with consumption as its central characteristic (at least in the area with the most proximity to the conference hotel, the Hyatt).  In contrast, the marchers seized upon a town square, an open space surrounded by markers of history (the Alamo and its surrounding buildings, the beautiful Menger hotel, the storefronts of varying lineage that lined the streets surrounding the conference sites) and signs of the vitality of the city.  It reminded me that we, as conference goers, had spent days within the halls of conference centers and corporate hotels, where space is carefully doled out for a price, discreetly managed by unseen hands, and intentionally differentiated from the surrounding public spaces and cityscapes.  And for a time, the city felt more real to me:  it felt like those who witnessed the march shared this space and a responsibility to it.  Like Virginia, I wanted to mark this moment’s ability to communicate a sense of place and purpose – especially with all of us who had spent hours talking about democracy and theorizing community within the confines of our own discourse and traditions. In a sense, it meant shifting from being in the city to being of the city – and shifting from the role of speaker to the role of listener.

Virginia: The twenty-first century has been characterized by its “local diversity” and its “global connectedness” (New London Group) and this characteristic is evident in cities such as San Antonio. The Riverwalk, as Erica noted, feels very homogenized, in an over-engineered, Disney-like fashion.  The franchised restaurants—the Hard Rock Café, and Mad Dogs, the pseudo-British pub—succeed in both connecting the globe—now, every city has these chains—while they also diversify the local character of a place that, one would think, would otherwise remain untouched by say, British ale, or food named after Motown legends. The character of this city would be all but erased as well as commodofied (Take your picture with a mariachi band!), were it not for the presence of these real people marching for real change in their everyday, non-tourist lives. Did Erica and I merely consume this event, offering it up for your (further) ingestion? I don’t know. Appropriation is an evitable danger when speaking for someone else and perhaps we can never know the plight of the migrant worker, the illegal alien, et cetera. But, the risk of not discussing these issues far outweighs the potential harm in representing the oppressed.

Erica and Virginia:  Like the marchers, many of us in attendance at the conference wanted to seize a time, place, and space in which to speak out of common experiences and for a communal purpose.  We are similarly a transient and multi-vocal, multi-modal community that often finds itself in a position to encourage awareness, understanding, and consciousness about the forces of cultural resistance and oppression.  Yet we are also often positioned as complicit in systems of power that allow us the privilege to so powerfully occupy moments, spaces and places that become, in a sense, our own once a year as we gather for the CCCC. We do understand the power of language and are committed to using this global discursive connecting device, the Internet, in order to extend our reach and deliver our inspiration to our wide community of scholars.

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