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The language of genocide

A writer resigns from the Los Angeles Times with a passionate letter charging it with racism and sexism in its pages and its newsroom.

By MIKE WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


From the resignation letter of Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, a pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times. The 3,400-word letter (which appears here in an edited version) has been circulated widely on the Internet since she left her $80,000-a-year job in September. On her Web site, http://alisa_valdes-rod.tripod.com/myhomepage/index.htm, she says the letter is "an intensely personal document that I never wanted the world to see."

-- MIKE WILSON, Floridian editor

* * *

TO: Supervisors and selected colleagues of Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

FROM: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, staff writer

This is my resignation from the Los Angeles Times. My reasons for leaving the Times range from the personal to the political, but in the end it is all political. Even the personal. The following are my reasons for leaving.

Reason 1

I came to this newspaper as part of something called the "Latino Initiative." At the time, I was not awake enough as a person to understand the horror of such a thing. I was not enlightened enough to realize that in the name of "diversity" the newspaper was committing an atrocity.

Now I am.

In the process of covering so-called "Latino" issues, I have stumbled upon a simple and disturbing fact: There is no such thing as a Latino. I have also seen this newspaper -- and most others -- butcher history and fact in an attempt to create this ethnic group.

When the Los Angeles Times writes of "Latinos" it often characterizes them as brown. It happens several times a week, usually. Most people in this area accept this interpretation. I do not. After all, my Navajo cousins from New Mexico are often approached on the street and spoken to in Spanish. They don't speak Spanish. They are brown, and, I am sure, would "look" Latino to most of my colleagues at this newspaper. But recent colonial history dictated they be born north of the Mexican border. They, like most of the people we call Latinos at this paper, are Indians. . . .

After extensive study of history, I believe "Latino" -- as used in the Los Angeles Times -- is the most recent attempt at genocide perpetrated against the native people of the Americas. I also posit this new genocide is far more dangerous than the old fashioned murder and relocation efforts.

Now, we simply rob people of their heritage, and force a new one upon them.

They are no longer Indians, with a 30,000 year claim to these lands; they are now immigrants, and "Latinos." . . .

By referring to the brown Indians in the U.S. who happen to come from Spanish speaking nations as "Latinos" we eradicate their ethnicities entirely, and pin to them a new set of stereotypes and expectations that in most cases simply do not fit. By perpetuating the myth that Indians who bear Spanish surnames are simply "Latino" -- and that Latino does not refer to anyone else -- we also deny Indians from Latin America a natural kinship to American Indians. DNA testing and blood type have shown most of the "brown" people in the Americas -- whether they live in Montana or Mexico City -- are descended from a small band of people who came here from Asia tens of thousands of years ago. Yet the Times has convinced itself and the general public that there is a "Latino" race of brown people, separate from this nation's Indians. It's idiotic. . . . When I attempted to write a commentary about the animated film The Road to El Dorado in order to address its misrepresentation of the genocide committed by the Spaniards against the native people of the Americas, I was told by the film editor my comparisons to the German holocaust were unjustified. (By some estimates, the Spaniards killed 10 times more people than the Nazis did -- most of it documented in the Spaniards' own journals.) He told me "holocaust" was too strong a word to use when talking about American Indians, and told me the word pertained only to the German holocaust. Any dictionary would have shown him that "holocaust" refers to any genocide committed against any people. The Los Angeles Times is located in perhaps the nation's largest Indian city, yet we deny there are Indians here. . . .

I am now carrying a child whose father is a Native American. His ancestors hail from the U.S. Southwest and from Northern and Central Mexico. I cannot in good conscience work for an institution that denies my child's inheritance to this land. I will cringe to see my child labeled "Latino" or "Hispanic" by virtue of a colonial last name and a brown skin color. I can no longer pretend to believe in the existence of "Latinos" when common sense and logic and an understanding of history point out there is no such thing, especially not in the way the Times uses the word.

Reason 2

Race. . . . Every day the Los Angeles Times runs an article about races of people the dominant class consider to be "other": Blacks, Asians, Latinos. Even as several other newspapers and news magazines make strides towards thinking of "race" in a new way, the Times is stuck in an outdated modality. The Miami Herald and the New York Times now make an effort to state regularly that "Latinos" may be of any "race"; while not an ideal portrayal of humans, in my opinion, it is still light years ahead of the racialist view of "Latinos" perpetuated by the Los Angeles Times.

To me, it is telling that the Times rarely, if ever, writes of those people categorized as "white" while identifying them by "race" for the heck of it. While we endlessly profile "Asian" authors and "Black" celebrities, we never classify the "white" people we write about as "white" unless they have committed a hate crime, or are being compared in a poll or study to "others." . . .

I cannot continue to lend my brain and efforts to an institution that so readily and shamelessly discriminates, stratifies and needlessly classifies people based upon what I -- and many social and physical scientists -- believe to be a false paradigm.

I love my salary. My benefits. I love the prompt response I get from people when I call and say I am a writer with the Los Angeles Times. But I do not love any of these things enough to sell my soul any longer in order to get them. I have tried to inspire change and enlightenment from within the newspaper, and have been met with confusion and snickers at best, and fierce opposition at worst. So, as long as the Los Angeles Times paints a daily portrait of the nation in terms of race, I cannot work there.

Reason 3

Lack of support. At risk of sounding boastful, I can say I am regarded among my peers an excellent writer. Yet I do not feel I have been embraced at the Times for the talents I have. In fact, I feel an effort has been made in some instances to squash the one thing that sets me apart in this field: my voice.

Daily, I read columns by people who are simply not smart enough or talented enough to write them. . . . I read about these people's personal lives, the foibles of their children, their narrow and uninspired views on race and ethnicity -- and nowhere do I find Los Angeles, or the nation, or the world, nowhere in this newspaper's columns do I find insight, or epiphany. . . .

I am not an idiot. And I know a hopeless battle when I face one. To stay at the Los Angeles Times and hope that my talent and ability and accomplishments will be fairly acknowledged and rewarded is unrealistic. This newspaper continues to reward mediocre men while insisting outstanding women jump through more and more hoops before ever getting similar reward. To stay under such circumstances would be to set myself up for failure and battle, two things I am no longer interested in. . . .

Reason 4

Mortality. How does the cliche go? Life is short.

At 31, expecting my first child, my life has suddenly come into brilliant focus. Since I was 15 years old I have written in my diaries of my dream: To write novels and live in the mountains outside of Albuquerque. For 16 years this dream has never changed. . . .

Is it vain to say I was born to write? To say journalism, daily journalism, has nearly beaten the innocent sort of love for the craft from me?

I wrote my first poem at 8, my first short story at 9. I stumbled onto journalism because writing was the only thing I did well enough to be paid to do it. And now, every time I write a profile of a celebrity who doesn't need the publicity, simply because that's how things are done, or every time I write about record sales or the Grammy awards or "Latino" artists, I pimp the very most sacred part of me.

Will I get paid to write novels? Maybe. Maybe not. But at this time in my life, I would rather get paid to do something completely unrelated to writing -- say, wait tables -- and write for the pleasure of it, than to be paid to write the way the dominant class believes I should write, about a world I don't see but they do.

So, one month from today, I will no longer work for the Los Angeles Times. I will work for my conscience, my soul, and my heart, and my child. If that means I live in a small room in the back of my father's house, so be it.

I will be happier there, writing my truth in "fiction," than I am here, writing your truth in "fact."

* * *

Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources.

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