Not long ago something happened that really had me scratching my head.
I accompanied a friend of mine who went to Tucson to shoot a little film about the political scene in Arizona, a state where Latinos seem to be under siege. The first stop on that little tour was the office that been the campaign office for Congressman Raul Grijalva. A group of Chicano students from Cal State Northridge had gone down there to help with some street canvassing. The office walls were decorated with a number of photographs of iconic American figures.
I walked up to a wall where a photo was hanging. It was classic black and white photograph of a Major League Baseball player sliding into home plate, his Brooklyn Dodgers cap flying dramatically off his head. I’d seen that photo lots of times. When I was seven or eight years old I remember first seeing it in Life Magazine. A young Chicana was staring at the picture when I walked up beside it, admiring it – and admiring the thought of this young Mexican American woman being impressed with what the photo evoked. I said to her, “Well, there he is, amazing to think about what that represents isn’t it?” She stared at me blankly. Her eyes seemed to say, “What the heck are you talking about?”
Immediately, I started thinking, “Maybe this print is just to blurry and out of focus for her to see clearly who that baseball player was.” I was wrong. I said to her, “That’s Number 42.” Now she looked at me as if I was from another planet, or smoking something that’s now presumably legal in Colorado.
A bit exasperated I said finally, “That’s Jackie Robinson.” Then, astonishingly to me, she said, “Who is that?” Then I looked at her as if she was from Mars.
I ended up giving her a two-minute history of Jackie Robinson and the trancendent social-historical-political significance of his breaking of the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947. “Really, I didn’t know that,” the college student replied.
I walked away from that conversation stunned. I stood there as if I was frozen at the plate, bat in hand, having taken a called third strike hurled with blinding speed by Sandy Koufax.
A dozen questions bounced around in my head. How could an apparently intelligent college student not know who Jackie Robinson was? Is it a generational thing? Is it just that I’m heading into codgerdom; maybe I’m making the wrong assumptions about what young, educated people should know? Am I just assuming too much about our collective contemporary American history? And the final question I asked myself: where did we go wrong that someone in this country just wouldn’t know something as basic as who Jackie Robinson was and what he represents – to all of us?
That incident happened a while back, but thoughts of it were rekindled recently when I saw a trailer online about the new biopic “42”. The film opens to coincide with opening day of the baseball season.
For days I seemed a little bit obsessed with that encounter with the college student in front of that iconic photograph. I went out of my way to ask people what they thought about it. I found myself asking twenty-somethings at Starbucks or at Vons or at the library if they knew who Jackie Robinson was. Nothing scientific about my “survey” of course, but I was astonished again and again the more I probed. Young folks – black and white, Latino and Asian American – didn’t seem to know who I was talking about. (At one point at dinner my wife chided me, “Just give a rest.”) Yet, I was a bit obsessed by all this.
Who else doesn’t register with young people? Do young people also not know about Rosa Parks? Cesar Chavez? Neil Armstrong? Goodness, even president Kennedy and the assassination? Individuals in history are mileposts in our collective experience. They’re the catalysts into historical epochs. Stuff, it seems to me, we should all know and share. I wanted to fault the school system, which let’s face it, is under attack for seemingly doing everything wrong. That’s not entirely fair, of course, given that public schools have their share of problems and are probably earnest in doing the best they can. But something is wrong somewhere. I certainly don’t know the answer, but I am troubled by the consequences.
Maybe it’s just that I live in Pasadena, the mecca of all things Jackie Robinson and my perspective is skewed. No I don’t think that’s it. I grew up in East L.A. and I certainly knew who he was. Maybe it’s because I played baseball as a kid and that’s why I knew. No, that can’t be it. It’s something I grappled with and still grapple with.
Maybe it’s a generational thing, after all and maybe I should stop fretting that some young people just don’t know who Jackie Robinson is and what his accomplishments mean to this country. Maybe I’m just getting old and maybe I’m losing perspective. One young person I quizzed at the grocery store told me, “That all happened before I was born, how should I know about it and why should I know about it.” That did it. Hey, I wasn’t around when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, but books have told me who he is. So that explanation by that kid in the grocery store just doesn’t wash with me.
Where have we gone wrong?
Luis Torres, a journalist and writer from
Pasadena, California, is at work on a
book that examines the 1968 East Los
Angeles high school student walkouts.