Misled in History

It’s too easy today to get romantic about history. Since first inundated with that sing-song phrase, “In 1400 and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” early in our childhood, we’ve grown up with the notion of the European explorers coming to America as romantic travelers who tamed a “new world,” despite heart-wrenching trials of character and will.
Unfortunately, history wasn’t quite that nice.
What I can’t understand is how the United States seems to love to propagate this revisionist and idealist history. It’s a blatant snub at the people who suffered the real abuses at the hands of our white, aristocratic past; these people are marginalized even today.
A case in point is Columbus Day. We’re taught in school how Columbus was given money by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to sail his Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria intrepidly across the Atlantic Ocean, with hopes of hitting India. We all know the anecdote where Columbus, thinking he had in fact landed on the Asian subcontinent, referred to the natives he encountered as “Indians.” But I think our celebration of Columbus Day is more a reflection of what we don’t know.
[jay3]At the end of the 15th century, Ferdinand and Isabella, for example, were rosary-deep in the Spanish Inquisition, forcing the Muslims they had just conquered in the Iberian Peninsula and their own Jewish citizens to either convert to Catholicism or be burned as heretics in some inane fealty to a God they must have feared. They later expanded their criteria to include Protestants.
Columbus took the royal duo’s funds, set sail from Spain and landed five weeks later in the Bahamas. There, he met the peaceful people most commonly known as the Arawak. Similar to the way Native Americans in the United States would do a couple hundred years later, the Arawak ran to Columbus’ boats bearing gifts. About them, he wrote in his journal:
“They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…They would make fine servants…”adding,“I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”
The first thoughts Columbus had upon his arrival in the Bahamas were not to try to learn about or understand the people whose land he had claimed. He instead contemplated how easily they could be indoctrinated with religion and forced into servitude.
But when Columbus discovered the Arawak had gold, that’s when he got really heroic.
He returned to Spain with exaggerated reports of “great mines of gold” and promises of large numbers of slaves. As a result, he was given supplies for a second voyage, including 17 ships and more than 1,200 men. Arriving once again in the Caribbean, Columbus and his men began to take slaves. When word of his intent spread, many Arawak abandoned their villages.
Not finding the vast amounts of gold he had anticipated, brave Columbus decided that any Arawak more than 14 years of age must bring him a certain amount of gold every three months. When gold was delivered to the Europeans, a token was hung around the Arawak’s neck. Any Arawak found without a token had his hands removed. When it was realized large amounts of gold were not going to be discovered, the Arawak were enslaved by the thousands, and any who resisted were violently slaughtered. Women and children were taken for sex and work; babies were chopped to pieces; men were tortured and killed. Thousands of Indians died from the harsh working conditions imposed by slavery, and thousands more died in mass suicides.
[jay5]To celebrate Columbus as a hero and set aside a day which we recognize his “accomplishments” is to completely ignore the horrors of genocide. The details of Columbus’ escapades provoke questions about our assumptions the history we’ve been taught is relatively objective. We need to inform ourselves of what really occurred in our past and go beyond the romantic accounts recalled with affection by history’s victors.
But the celebration of genocide shouldn’t be surprising in a country founded upon a Declaration of Independence penned in hypocrisy by a man who kept and slept with slaves. It’s the same country where the most celebrated historical figure and very first President was lauded until he became legend (see: cutting down a cherry tree) while the fact he owned slaves is conveniently ignored. This is the country that massacred Native Americans with gunpowder and small pox blankets, stole their land and then made reparations for it by giving them near-worthless tracts of land where their people could attempt miserably to maintain their heritage while riddled with social problems we initiated. If Christopher Columbus were alive today, he’d say, “God Bless America.”

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Migration to Education

Raul Ramos, the associate director of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) and affectionately known as \”Rudy,\” has a pretty good idea what freshman CAMP students need in order to adjust to university life. After all, he comes from four generations of migrant workers himself. Rudy spent many of his summer vacations throughout elementary and middle school tagging along with his parents to harvest crops in the hot sun. He has lived in the camps, and he knows the migrant life.[farm1]
Rudy was born in Battle Creek, Mich., while his parents were migrating to work in the fields. Even though his mother had only an 8th grade education and his father was illiterate, Rudy\’s parents knew the importance of a good education and drove Rudy to continue with his academics. Now working with MSU\’s CAMP program, Rudy has the opportunity to help students whose backgrounds, to him, are all too familiar. CAMP provides him with the chance to give back. \”The real rewarding thing for me is to be able to go back to my roots, and to help these students. It\’s very fulfilling,\” Rudy said.
CAMP was the brainchild of Luis A. Garcia. Garcia saw the opportunity for MSU, as a land-grant institution, to help provide education to migrant farm workers in the area, and appealed to the U.S. Department of Education three times before they were convinced his collected data showed a genuine need to accommodate the large number of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the area — people who are often in the lowest income bracket. In 2000, the Department of Education agreed to fund the program, and CAMP was given the green light. It now accepts around 70 students a year (a majority of whom are their family\’s first generation to go to college) out of an applicant pool of about double that number.
The main goal of the CAMP program is to provide academic and monetary support and retention services to freshman students with migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds in order to ensure they make it through their first year and successfully transition to college life. Many students\’ families are from Texas and Florida and have been traveling to work in Michigan for generations. All are either U.S. citizens or in the process of becoming permanent residents.
Because of their migrant backgrounds, CAMP students often have many more challenges to face when coming to a major university like MSU. Many students have had to complete their high school educations in many different schools, or even at MSU, depending on where their families migrated to work. This is a marked disadvantage, as it\’s hard for both the student to adjust to such different academic atmospheres and for the teacher to try and play catch-up for a student who enters their classroom halfway through the year. Because of these obstacles, CAMP provides academic tutoring. The program also assists students in buying their textbooks, and can even provide winter clothing, basic health insurance and money towards optical, dental and emergency care to those that need it most. Another job of the CAMP staff, which is made up of three graduate students, is to find ways to help students fund their additional years at MSU, as many are unable to afford student loans. This has led to partnerships with banks, as well as being named by the university as one of the top five endowment programs.
Many prospective CAMP students also face challenges at home even before entering college life. Because most parents of these students never attended college, they are unaware of resources like financial aid, which are essential in providing a means for students to continue their education on a post-secondary level. Part of Rudy\’s job as a liaison between the students and the university is to ensure that financial forms, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), are properly filled out. However, even though many CAMP students receive the maximum amount of federal assistance, there remains a sum of money known as \”unmet need\” which the CAMP program, depending on the student\’s financial situation, is often able to cover.
While Rudy does interact with the students and the university to solve various financial issues, maybe \”liaison\” is the wrong word to use — it sounds too formal, too cold. It doesn\’t seem to consider another goal of the CAMP program, one perhaps too implicitly understood to belong in the mission statement: to knit the students into a large, loving family unit. The CAMP staff fosters this kind of connection by placing all CAMP students in Holden Hall, where they can easily visit the CAMP offices and hang out together in the nearby study lounge. Taking this into consideration, Rudy is actually more like an uncle to these students.
For Rudy, helping students who grew up facing similar difficulties is incredibly rewarding. A friendly man with dark features, always smiling behind a moustache, Rudy\’s pride in his students is apparent when he talks about what can only be described as the monumental success of the program thus far. \”We\’re into about 70 to 75 percent of our students that are graduating, which, of course, is well above the national norms,\” Ramos said. \”The drop-out rate for high school alone is 60 to 70 percent for Hispanics, and graduation from a major college or university like MSU is 10 to 12 percent. The students are definitely making us look good.\”
When asked what jobs graduates of the program often find, Rudy couldn\’t help but smile as he described the variety of fields in which CAMP students are gaining employment. He mentioned in particular a couple of recent graduates from MSU\’s packaging program, one of the top in the nation, and commented on MSU\’s role with CAMP. \”Historically, a lot of doors to (various) colleges have been closed to our students, but I must say MSU has been tremendous. They have bent over backwards to help this program and our students. They want to see us succeed as bad as we do,\” he said. [mig2]
Most of all, though, Rudy just wants these kids, students with backgrounds so similar to his, to have the opportunities for success that he had. He wants to make them feel at home in an academic environment. \”(Students) feel like a family, and know that they can come to us and we can give them direction,\” he said. \”If we can\’t provide the service, we can send them to someone who does and can provide the service.\”
Javier Pescador, assistant professor of history, believes CAMP is a step in the right direction for a U.S. government that has, in the past, exploited the Hispanic labor force in times of great need and amid the security scaremongering in a post-9/11 world.
\”The U.S. has a tendency to forget the contributions of people of Mexican descent,\” Pescador said. \”The United States government has signed international labor agreements with Mexico, so that the U.S. economy could benefit from the importation of Mexican laborers.\”
The Bracero Agreement is one example cited by Pescador. An arrangement signed in 1942 by both the United States and Mexico, the agreement ensures fair treatment by the U.S. for Mexican laborers in hopes that they would cross the border, work in the fields and contribute to the economic goals of the World War II era. While the braceros (\”unskilled laborers\” in Spanish) contributed greatly to the U.S. economy as well as the war effort, their years of work were never adequately acknowledged by the United States, Pescador said.
[pescador3]And now, since 9/11, Pescador believes the Mexican immigrants and Mexican nationalists are becoming scapegoats. \”There\’s no connection whatsoever between the protection of the border and terrorist threats,\” Pescador said. \”If you see the legal status of the people who perpetrated the attacks, they had visas. They did not cross the border into the U.S. from Mexico. Now it seems to me that since the U.S. government hasn\’t been able to capture Osama bin Laden, they want to make an example by illustrating muscle against the Mexican immigrants.\”
Pescador\’s outlook on United States immigration policy contrasts greatly with his support for the CAMP program and its students. \”I think it\’s very important that the land grant institution keeps the opportunity to the children of migrant families that work the land to receive the benefits of an education,\” he said. \”There\’s no question that the members of migrant families that come to school face a lot more obstacles than the regular student. But at the same time, they are used to enduring hardships, and they are very strong-willed. They see education as a way to improve their social and economic status.\”
Elvia Gonzalez is a student living with the benefits of an MSU education through CAMP. As she sat behind the desk in the CAMP secretary\’s office and made certain to explain to me that it wasn\’t her desk — \”I just answer the phones,\” she said — I tried to find out what she thought of the immigration controversy. Gonzalez, a 21-year-old food industry management sophomore, was an intelligent and confident young woman. The phone in the office rang occasionally throughout our interview, and she answered, easily switching between Spanish and English. After the conclusion of one call, she smiled: \”Sorry, a little Spanglish at work.\”
Concerning current issues on immigration, she is immediately wary. She\’s had a bad experience with the media before, and made very clear that she was speaking on behalf of herself only, and not CAMP. \”We all have different opinions,\” she said, \”even within the CAMP program.\” Gonzalez knows people living both legally and illegally in the U.S. \”It all happens when you get hungry; that\’s why I\’m doing food industry management. I have a passion for food, because when people are not hungry, they\’re able to do some things, but when people are hungry, they\’re willing to do other things,\” she said.
[gonzalez]After graduating high school in Polly, Texas, Gonzalez learned of CAMP through recruiters visiting the state and from students already involved in the program. A migrant worker since she was 12, she traveled with her parents to Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida employed in various jobs. Gonzalez has trimmed Christmas trees; she has picked blueberries from a factory line; she has harvested corn and cared for plants in a nursery. She spent many hours laboring in these exhausting jobs all summer, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and blueberry processing could sometimes go from 7 a.m. to two or three the next morning. \”You had to be of age to work,\” Gonzalez explained.
She started working alongside her parents at age 12, though today you have to be 14 to be considered \”of age.\” However, there are loopholes to that. \”Before (you are of age), you could go along with your parents and work with them,\” Gonzalez said. Blueberries, for example, when picked by the bucket, could be counted along with the buckets that her parents picked.
During the summer months at these various jobs, Gonzalez and her family stayed in what are called \”migrant camps.\” \”They\’re kind of like apartment complexes, but not as nice,\” Gonzalez said. The camps are usually located near a city or town, and can range from two or three trailers to dozens. Rudy cited this often inadequate housing as one of the challenges CAMP students like Gonzalez have faced and overcome.
Facing challenges throughout their lives has united students of the CAMP program, and overcoming the challenge of transitioning to college life has undoubtedly been a great success, one that Rudy and his staff hope to continue. There is talk of accepting 80 applicants next year instead of 70, making the CAMP family even bigger. [mig3]
\”They won\’t turn you away,\” Gonzalez said. \”There are some students that feel that way. You hear things from people that don\’t give back, but I guess that\’s how it is. You get back what you put in.\”

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