The secret “leaders” amongst us…
Circa 1988 I wrote an essay entitled “Why are we so mean to our heroes and heroines and so nice to the vendidos?” in which I lamented the tendency of many “Hispanic” organizations to confer awards on undeserving people while ignoring bona-fide grassroots people who have made meaningful contributions to our community. What I said 25-plus years ago comes to mind as I read about the goings on at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).
UT Austin, under the auspices of the Center of Mexican American Studies (CMAS) and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies (MALS), conferred the first-ever Latino Leadership Award on newly-elected Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
But he hasn’t done anything yet!
When Bush received the CMAS/ MALS Leadership Award, he had been in elected office all of three (3) months, hardly enough time to develop a credible body of work or to make meaningful contributions to the community. And, in any event, none of his work has focused on the Mexican American-Latino community. Raised in Florida, Bush attended private schools all his life, except for law school at UT Austin. He has raised funds for Big Brothers-Big Sisters, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and Uplift Education, a Dallas-based charter school. Bush has taken full advantage of his family name to propel himself within the Republican Party, which is actually inimical to Mexican American-Latino interests. Thus, many UT faculty, students, alumni and community members contend that Bush hasn’t done anything to warrant the prestigious inaugural Latino Leadership award.
In my 1988 essay I addressed this business of giving awards to people who haven’t done anything yet:
“Mutual admiration societies get together and put on fancy dinners to honor their members and friends and even honor people who have not done anything yet! Here’s an example:
“A while back, a Mexican-American professional from another state got a high-level management job here in Tucson. There were receptions and dinners ‘honoring’ him as a great Tucson Chicano ‘leader’—I guess for things the honoring group thought he would do in the future, because he surely had not done anything yet. Frankly, he never did do anything worthwhile here. But that did not stop the mutual admiration people from lapping behind him like little puppy dogs during his time here. It was embarrassing to see this.”
Seems a variation of this scenario may be playing out at UT Austin. Except that in addition to the puppy-doggying aspect, the present situation is shrouded in secrecy and politics.
In these situations, context matters. But since UT and CMAS/MALS refuse to divulge who was involved in selecting Bush and what criteria were used or anything else about the award process, the public has no context. Speaking at a rally protesting the Bush award, feminist activist and author Martha Cotera, in addition to expressing concern that “… the Republican platform that (Bush) supports is anti-civil rights, anti-poor, anti-women,” said, “We do not know how this honor came about.”
The National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) adopted a resolution by Texas Mexican American scholars charging that Bush’s secretive selection violates NACCS’ core values of “democratic participation, transparency, accountability, and faculty, student and community engagement.” A public statement by UT Austin faculty members, students, alumni, and community members demanded that the university and CMAS/MALS “… detail the selection criteria and the names and affiliations of all decision makers involved.”
Expressing the sentiments of “many faculty, students, and community members,” UT Austin professor Angela Valenzuela wrote in her “Educational Equity, Politics & Policy in Texas” blog that the exclusion of faculty, students, and community regarding the Bush award “… has brought great harm to our image and reputation as a university.” Bush’s selection was so secret that even the CMAS/MALS Executive Committee members were kept in the dark about the award being given in their name. They learned of the award only when they were invited to the award ceremony, according to professor Valenzuela, a member of the CMAS/MALS Executive Committee.
Secrecy and political opportunism: great bedfellows, but…
When people in public institutions work hard to keep things secret it’s usually because there are shenanigans going on they don’t want the public to know about. In this case, those shenanigans may have to do with political opportunism.
Jeb Bush, George P. Bush’s father, is a Republican presidential candidate. Even as Republicans at all levels—local, state, national—demonize Latinos, particularly Mexicans, they claim to be reaching out to Latinos, whose support they need in order to be viable at the presidential-race level. When speaking to Latino groups or in ads targeting Latinos, I can envision Jeb Bush flaunting the fact that the Center of Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at UT Austin think so highly of the Bush family that they gave his son the first-ever Latino Leadership Award.
Those political dynamics may be the context of this conspiracy of secrecy.
However, as a state university, UT Austin is a government agency, and in Texas government agencies cannot legally operate in secret. The Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) mandates that “each person is entitled … at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees” and that the TPIA “… shall be liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information.” To my layman’s eye, it seems that shrouding the Bush award in secrecy is in violation of Texas law.
I would hope that it’s only a matter of time before someone files a public-records request based on the Texas Public Information Act and forces the university and CMAS/MALS to release the information they are so determined to hide from the public.
We need to take charge of our own history!
Twenty five-plus years ago I argued that we should not let outsiders thrust “leaders” upon us. And that we have to raise our standards regarding whom we consider leaders, that if we expect excellence from our children, we have to give them excellence in our examples. That argument is as relevant today as it was then.
In my 1988 essay I wrote that, “There are many things that we can do to take charge of our history and to give new life, and real meaning, to the tradition of honoring those men and women whose principled work—and often, sacrifices—has benefited our lives in meaningful ways. We have the means, and we have the material. All we need is the will and the dedication to do it.”
What I said then applies today. Whom we recognize as leaders and role models is a measure of the respect we have for our community and our history. That UT Austin and the Center of Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies are giving Latino Leadership Awards that are shrouded in secrecy and shadowy politics disrespects our community and our history and is a huge slap in the face to the many Mexican American-Chicano(a)-Latina(o) people in Texas whose body of work over many years genuinely qualifies them for a Latino Leadership Award. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Salomón R. Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org Photo of George P. Bush public domain attributable to Gage Skidmore. Jeb Bush photo in public domain. NACCS logo used under fair use. All other photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, inc.