In the United States we name buildings, roads and geographic landmarks after individuals whose accomplishments we, as a society, deem meritorious, beneficial to our society and worthy of recognition. Individuals whose impact on American society has been national in scope appropriately often have major national edifices named after them ( i.e. the Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial ) while local buildings often reflect a remembrance of someone whose contributions reflect some link to the building itself or the community where the building is located. Thus, it is not surprising that in largely African American neighborhoods one would find a schools, libraries or streets named after a prominent African American leader such as the Rev. Martin Luther King.
The requirements for naming would seen pretty self-evident. The candidate being considered should be: 1) Deceased. You don’t want to honor some living celebrity or civic leader who later turns out to be an embezzler or crook, 2)someone who has exemplified high standards of ethics and character, 3) someone who has accomplished significant deeds that have contributed to the overall betterment of society, 4) someone who embodies the positive values and aspirations of the community and is someone that the community can proudly point to as an example of a positive role model.
Which brings us to a current discussion about the renaming of Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles located at 4765 East Fourth Street. The school was named after Hollywood film innovator and director D.W. Griffith.
As a Mexican American film and television director, with the greatest respect for the long history of the many innovators, directors and producers who have made today’s motion industry what it is, I have to acknowledge the undeniable contributions D.W. Griffith made to the motion picture industry– innovative filmic techniques such as the use of the close-up, parallel story intercutting, montage, and, narratively, the co-joining of a personal storyline within an epic background as is evidenced in Griffith’s most successful film, Birth of a Nation.
But it is not the technical contributions of Griffith’s fimmaking that come to mind but rather the blatant racism inherent in his classic work that, a hundred years later, still continues to stain his reputation. Birth of a Nation, based on the novel, The Clansman, takes place in post-Civil War America where African Americans are portrayed stereotypically as leering at white women and where the Klu Klux Klan is portrayed as the defender of white chastity, suggesting that the lynching of African Americans is somehow justified. Birth of a Nation has been described as the most racist film of all time, and is credited with reviving the Klu Klux Klan movement in during the 1920s and 1930s.
D.W. Griffith hardly meets the criteria we discussed earlier. Rather than evidencing high ethical standards, Griffith’s name recalls racism, and racism is certainly not the values of the Latino community nor of the aspirations we want for our children.
One has to ask, why was the school, whose population is predominantly Latino, named after D.W. Griffith in the first place? Shouldn’t the school be named after someone more appropriate to the community the school serves?
Yes, it should.
And there is a person whose life does embody all of the criteria we have determined should be at play in determining the naming of a school. And that person is Félix J. Gutiérrez, revered educator and pioneering activist for Mexican American advancement.
As a young man, in 1938, Gutiérrez founded The Mexican Voice, one of the earliest magazines devoted to advancing Mexican American youth. After working his way through UCLA and earning a B.A. at a time when few Latinos were attaining higher education, he went on create the YMCA’s Mexican Youth Conference, creating educational and sports opportunities for Mexican American youth. In 1942, he formed The Mexican American Movement, whose magazine Forum was considered “the voice of modern Mexican youth.” From 1950 to his death, Gutierrez taught art and Journalism at what is now Griffith Middle School, as well as sponsoring the school yearbook and coaching after school sports.
What better example to show our Latino children, than a Latino, like themselves, who actually taught at their school and worked his entire life to advance and uplift the Mexican American community?
If it’s a choice between D.W. Griffth and Félix J. Gutiérrez, the choice is obvious.
Let’s honor ourselves, past and future, and the values of education and Mexican American advancement by naming the school after Félix J. Gutiérrez.
Copyright 2016 by Jesús Salvador Treviño. Treviño is a retired television director and creator of www.latinopia.com