White Noise

The Spanish-American War was an act of conquest. I don’t teach it that way. I do, however, offer primary sources, statistics and stories from the time period that challenge the textbook assumptions that Mexico baited the U.S. into war and then the United States graciously bought the land afterwards from a cash-strapped Mexican government.

White noise.

Immigration wasn’t entirely East to West. The border crept down as much as the people moved up. The standards speak of immigration and Ellis Island, but the students inevitably ask about Mexico and I allow them to study the “other immigration” ignored by the textbooks. I also allow them to see the pejorative way that Americans viewed the Italians, Irish and Germans a century ago. It wasn’t always a beacon welcoming in the huddled masses.

White noise.

When studying the labor movement, I don’t stop with Samuel Gompers. I let them view the Spanish and English newspapers depicting the dual-wage system between Mexican and White (the terms used at the time) workers in the Bisbee copper mines. I don’t treat as a “good guy” and “bad guy” story. In fact, they often learn about the reality of how Mexicans mistreated indigenous people and how certain white labor groups embraced the Latino population. It’s a nuanced, conflicting, confusing reality.

White noise.

There is a popular ideology in Arizona that history is singular and finished. Speaking critically about one’s nation is somehow unpatriotic.  Thus colonized people don’t deserve a voice, because the past has already spoken. Any criticism they bring up becomes an example of a victim mentality. Nevermind that they were often victims in the past.

It doesn’t matter that the Latino labor movements, civil rights movements and education rights movements were deeply democratic and rooted in a belief that advocacy would work. It makes little difference that many Mexican-Americans defined themselves, less as colonized people and more as Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. It makes little difference that our nation, despite all of its shouting matches, often becomes a chorus of democracy. None of that matters in the face of white noise.

White noise.

White noise is why so many Latino students feel rejected by America and why so many students of all ethnic backgrounds are skeptical about the whitewashed pages of their textbooks. White noise is why so many negative stereotypes about “Mexican labor” still persist (the myth that they are all unskilled and that our education system is their only hope). White noise is why we are so slow to examine the militaristic phrases our politicians throw around, such as: border security, invaders, defense, strengthen, etc.

White noise is why things remain divisive and why healing doesn’t occur.


John Spencer

John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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