What a Beautiful Night in the Neighborhood. Would It Be Mine? Could It Be Mine?

This past Thursday, I went to a special neighborhood meeting that was called because a local non-profit, Casa Latina, wants to relocate all of its services to our neighborhood, and some of the neighbors are concerned. Frankly, some of them are terrified and, as usual, those damned isms are the culprit.

Racism, classism, and xenophobia, to be more specific.

See, Casa Latina is an organization with the purpose of helping mostly Latina/o immigrants to pursue work, education, and personal empowerment. They have ESL programs, women’s empowerment programs, and they also have an active day-labor center, which helps immigrant workers to find day-labor within more dignified conditions than they might otherwise find. Basically, they are doing really good, important work.

My neighbors all seem to agree. Except some of them don’t want that work to be done “in their backyard.” “Can’t you do your good work somewhere else, doesn’t our neighborhood have enough non-profits doing good work?” (actual statement) “Our neighborhood is finally moving away from being a social service magnet, this is taking us in exactly the wrong direction.” Basically, the message was: go help poor Latina/os elsewhere. Here they’re good enough to build our houses and cut our lawns, but god forbid that they actually stick around and set up shop here!

It seems that our neighborhood, Jackson Place (sort of within and between the International District and the Central District in Seattle, right along Jackson st.), is definitely undergoing a process of gentrification, with fancy condos going up and businesses moving in (target is also looking to relocate nearby), and so Casa Latina is exactly the kind of thing that some folks just don’t want. It’s bad for the property values, you know. More white professionals? All for ’em! More poor brown people? What, what?!

So basically this is how the meeting broke down: the majority of the members were older Asian folks, with some older white folks. The majority were against Casa Latina (but this was just the last in MANY community meetings about this project…and this one was organized by the angry neighbors who seem to have not have heard about the MANY other meetings!), and there were a handful of us who welcome Casa Latina. Also, there were a number of women from the Casa Latina board strongly and clearly defending their project and their organization, and there were two Mexican immigrant men who spoke very emotionally and painfully about the effect that racism and distance from their homes has caused them here in Seattle.

In my view, the “antis” already had their minds made up before the meeting even started. The majority of them were defensive, distrusting, and snotty as hell…basically insinuating that Casa Latina has been planning this project deceptively and with some kind of sweetheart deal with the city, and that they are trying to sneak these new offices onto our streets without telling any of us. When the women strongly explained that this was not the case, it seemed like most of the folks weren’t listening. And there’s a reason for this: the isms had drowned out all other noise in the room.

Only five minutes in, the real issue was out in the open: the anger had nothing to do with lack of open communication or planning protocol or anything, and it had everything to do with the image of poor Latino men out on the street-corner waiting for work.

Latino men. That was the issue. Period.

“I’ve been living here twenty years and we have fought prostitution, drugs, homeless people, people sleeping in benches…and we are terrified of this. We don’t want you here in our neighborhood,” yelled the angry white man who then proceeded to interrupt pretty much everyone else in the room as the night went on.

“Just tell me, are these people legal, or are they illegal?” Another white man chimed in.

“Sir, we don’t ask.”

“Well, then you’re supporting criminals!”

“You don’t even do a background check? We have children going to school nearby, how can the city allow this?”

Fear. Fear. Fear. The image of Latino men, huddled together in the morning, speaking in tongues…who knows what they are saying in that language of theirs…perhaps they are planning on kidnapping our children…or selling drugs. You know, because drugs do come from, you know, those countries down there.

God, it was just a few rifles short of being a Minuteman meeting…and the sad thing was that some of those angry folks weren’t white…they were Asian. It was actually quite devastating, especially in that the “antis”‘ petition actually compared the deal that the city made with Casa Latina to the JAPANESE INTERNMENT! What the?!

There were some allies who spoke up, and the two Mexican men held their ground (even when one of them told the Asian folks that their minds had been poisoned by the racism of white people…every one gasped and laughed at him…despite him being completely right), and frankly Casa Latina is going to win this, because the actual majority of the neighborhood supports them…but it was so painful to watch as stereotypes just rolled along and just got worse.

But I could only smile during the last minutes, when things were really made clear. The old angry white man, who had been yelling and interrupting, all to much applause, decided to tell us a story about how there were three groups doing neighborhood break-ins. One group was caught, and they were three Latinos. (At this point, I loudly said, “OH GOD, here we go!”). He told us that they had climbed up and broken into like the third story of the building…

“They were Latinos who broke in like this. Not black people. Black people just do not break into buildings. Black people will break into your car, or steal other stuff, but they don’t break into buildings.”

And with that, I hope the rest of the “antis” really got to see what position they were associating themselves with. The same old bullshit, dressed up as civic concern for the neighborhood. Those old White Citizen’s Councils were all about being civic minded as well.

Every day more lines are drawn in a not-so-new war against immigrants. Before Thursday, I didn’t know that our own block would end up being a battlefield.

Viva Casa Latina…

Pero, realmente, viva la revolucion…porque una chiquita organizacion como esa no va a poder ganar lo que realmente necesitamos…un cambio completo de este sistema tan injusto, corrupto y criminal. Poco a poco…

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