…when will they learn…

At a press conference today, Sea World CEO announced that the theme park will continue to use its killer whales in shows, only no trainer will be allowed to set foot inside the water.

What?! What will it take for these parks to realize than no living animal likes captivity and that whenever possible, whenever confined, animals, like humans, will seek a way to escape. 

There is a reason why keeping a killer whale in an over sized swimming pool is dangerous.  It’s a wild animal.  And while I would be the first to argue that protecting endangered species is our responsibility, I would certainly object to anyone who feels that keeping them in petting zoos is a way to go.  Am I the only one worried that several generations of animals in captivity will develop new traits and behaviors that their counterparts in the wild not?  How many freed animals have died waiting around for a trainer to arrive with a bucket of food?

Killer whales, dolphins, giraffes, lions, hippos, monkeys, even snakes are beautiful animals that deserve to be freed.  Yes its sad when we see a lion eating a small gazelle or an orca eating a sea lion that could, if trained properly, balance a ball on its nose and learn to clap.  But this is what natural selection is all about.  This is the circle of life.  If we really want to protect endangered species from extinction, then we must do what we can to prevent it by staying clear of their natural habitat.  We are responsible for their demise, so we must show a new responsibility in their survival.

I feel sad for the woman who drowned.  Strangely enough, she did not die because the orca chewed her to pieces or tried to eat her.  The animal simply dragged her to the bottom of the pool in the same manner as it was trained to do for the show.  This time around, the animal kept her a bit longer, though I suspect that the trainer panicked and did not take a long enough breath when she was caught off guard.  My sympathies are with her family and friends.  But my outrage is with Sea World, its share holders, sponsors and the general public who continue to show up in droves to see these behemoths of the sea swim in circles.

It’s been reported by many nature and animal shows that the orca has a beautiful mode of communication.  But like many other animals who are imprisoned in cramped spaces, their spirit ceases to sing.  I was hoping this incident would incite a global calling to free not just this orca, but all other animals.  Unfortunately, that is not to be, perhaps ever.

That said, I wonder: if at this press conference the orca would have broken the plexy glass and swallowed the CEO whole in front of reporters, would Sea World and other theme parks still see this as just an isolated incident not worthy of reconsideration?  Money will always talk.  I just hope the day does not come when an orca jumps so high in the air that it lands on audience members.  Maybe a lawsuit of that magnitude will shut down such theme parks for good.  As terrible as that sounds, let us not forget that even such an incident is nature’s way of saying enough.

Hollywood’s Cinderellas: How Vanity Fair’s Photo Spread Got It Right — Unfortunately.

Ok, so I’m a bit upset.  Wait. No. I changed my mind. I’m livid at the new Vanity Fair cover featuring the latest young actresses.  Ordinarily, I never bother to think about who’s on the cover of what magazine.  For me, it’s always been about what is in vogue.  George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston and all the other celebrities headlining a magazine, even a tabloid, don’t mind the limelight.  They may say they value their privacy.  But at the end of the day, when a celebrities ‘star power’ in Hollywood is calculated, the number of times they’ve appeared on the cover of a magazine, on gossip television shows or even the tabloids adds up.  The more exposure, the higher your worth.  And for sponsors and advertisers, exposure means money.  So why am I so angry about this Vanity Fair cover?
Look at it!  Is it me or do they all appear to be born from the same mother.  If these actresses were part of a film’s ensemble, then my anger would have been annoyance that they could not find an actress of color.  Even as an activist I would not have minded seeing a Latina holding a broom in the background so long as there was some representation.  But in this case, for this particular spread, Vanity Fair selected the crème de la white crème and called the issue “A New Decade. A New Hollywood: Starring the Fresh Faces of 2010”.  Let me repeat that in case you also missed the whole point of this rant: A New Decade. A New Hollywood. Starring the Fresh Faces of 2010.
Can someone explain to me how a photo of nine white women represents an ever-changing society in a new decade.  And is this really representative of a new Hollywood?  Is this the future editors at Vanity Fair know Hollywood is headed towards or is it wishful thinking?
I suppose I should not be that upset about this whole thing.  Perhaps my cinematically-challenged friends are right and I should just ignore the piece.  Most of them are immigrant rights activists and so to them, this just proves that we still live in a country that discriminates openly, especially so in the entertainment industry.  In hindsight, they’re right.  I’m not naive nor do I live in some fantasy world where all I see on my television set are the kinds of shows I saw growing up like “The Cosby Show”, “227”, “American Family”, “L.A. Law”, “Hill Street Blues”, “A Different World”, “Different Strokes” or “Alf” — you know, shows with people that looked like me with lives similar to mine.  I know Hollywood is still an all ‘white’ club, and this spread is a true reflection of the status quo.  But when considering the great level of talent by talent of color, especially this year, I am left wondering if the system will ever change.
Yes it’s a new decade.  But no, it’s still very much the old Hollywood.  And the women on this cover may be fresh faces of 2010, but they are certainly not from the world I live in, especially in the world of entertainment that I naively continue to love.

Our greatest fear is that we are afraid…

I just read an article on the BBC Online where a Jewish man’s prayer items triggered  a bomb scare, forcing the plane to land in Philadelphia.  He was not arrested and the plane landed just fine.

A few months ago, a Latina grandmother was asked to unboard a plane after she politely asked the flight attendant for an extra 2 minutes to finish prayer her rosary. It was her first time on a plane and she was going to visit her pregnant grand daughter.  Without giving her a chance to reconsider, the flight attendant called security, who rushed the plane, escorted the soon-to-be great grandmother off the plane to a holding room.  She missed her flight and a chance to be with her family.  Though charges were filed, they were eventually dismissed.

Is this religious discrimination? Or have we reached a point where the safest mode of transportation — still is, by the way, despite the many terror threats — is becoming the worst without foundation?  I’m not suggesting a person of the Jewish faith lighting a menorah in the middle of the aisle won’t get arrested or charged with threatening to blow up a plane.  What I am wondering is if we have in essence reached a point in our lives where even a great-grandmother and an Orthodox Jew should be seen with great timidity? We already feel uneasy around someone who we stereotypically identify as Muslim.  That is an unfortunately reality.  It’s not right. But it’s what people do when they are afraid of what they are told to be a known fact by the media.

So the question remains, what are we so afraid of?

Remembering Mr. Salcedo

There comes a time when I am everso proud of being Mexican, of being a member of a community and people who have preferred to “die on their feet than live on their knees”, as Emiliano Zapata once said.  But on New Year’s Eve, my heart sank at the news that Roberto Salcedo, a ferverent immigrant rights activist was murdered execution style in the Mexican state of Sonora.  According to news reports, a group of gunmen entered a restaurant where Mr. Salcedo was having dinner with his wife and several of his former high school friends and at gunpoint, forced him out.  His body and that of his friends were found riddled with bullets to the torso and head.
For years, I have wanted to return to Mexico to visit friends and to work on films but I have chosen not to for fear that I too could become a victim of a senseless murder.  Friends living in Mexico and news reporters on both sides of the border say that the victims of these senseless killings are not innocent, that most of them are involved in drugs, often times owing money to dealers.  Really?  I don’t know the friends of Mr. Salcedo.  But if the Mexican proverb, “Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres” (tell me about the company you keep and I will tell you the type of person that you are) is at all correct, then I believe the friends Mr. Salcedo was meeting with that day were just like him.  They must have been loving family members, teachers and activists, because that was exactly the type of person that he was.  He was loved.  And in a world where motives are always questioned, his deeds never were.  Anyone who knew Mr. Salcedo saw in him a selfless advocate for social change, a man who always put the interests of others before his own, something he surely learned from his own parents.
I knew Mr. Salcedo, and I can state with great certainty that his passing could not have come at a worse time.  As selfish as that sounds, we still needed him to finish what he started.  Through his hard work and dedication, he ignited a flame of hope for those undocumented students who did not receive the support they deserved to dream bigger.  He made it possible for them to believe in themselves and in a strange way, in fellow man, even though many tried desperately to limit their access to higher education.  Those of us who knew him and those of us impacted by his deeds must now carry on with his work, always reminding those we serve that Mr. Salcedo’s work and example continues to live in each and every one of us.  We must never forget what he started, but we must finish it.
My heart aches for his family, especially a good friend of mine who turns out was related to him.  Nothing we can say or do will ever bring him back.  His life was taken, but his spirit remains in us.  No ‘narco’, ‘zeta’ or corrupt official will ever take that from us because I and those who knew him will not let them.

Military Suicides Not Worthy of Condolence Letter from the President?

A few short hours ago, I finished talking to my little sister in South Korea via Skype when I came across an article on CNN.com that disturbed me. According to the article, it seems there is a long-standing policy of not writing letters of condolence to families of soldiers who commit suicide. Those who know me know that I am an anti-war activist, but that I reserve the right to support military intervention so long as it is being done to protect those who cannot do so themselves. While our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is something many do not champion, some, including myself, do support our troops, especially when, as is the case with me, many of them are young men and women I once tutored in high school. And it is because of them that I feel compelled to react to this ridiculous policy.

According to the Washington Post, over 5,290 mothers, fathers, husbands and wives have received a visit from a military chaplain announcing the tragic death of a loved one. Over 3,100 of them were under 25 years of age, some having served for several years with only a few week’s furlough to visit friends and family. For those lucky enough to return home alive, life is never the same. Many veterans arrive broken in mind and spirit and in dire need of psychological treatment. Like them, many of us assumed war in Iraq and Afghanistan would be similar to the first Iraq War just 10 years before. Like then, we knew exactly who our enemy was. But soon after the fall of Baghdad the second time around, the enemy our soldiers were used to fighting were no longer wearing uniforms, holding a gun or sitting in tanks. They were merchants, school teachers, police officers and Iraqi veterans determined to drive the US and her allies out of Iraq. For the average soldier, everyone was suspect. Like them, the people of Iraq were potential targets, and so they spent every moment on duty fearful that their end would come with explosives packed in a taxicab’s trunk, a horse-drawn carriage carrying wood, an ambulance racing to an unknown destination, or attached to a person’s body.

The enemy in post-Saddam Iraq was a formidable adversary willing to kill their own people without humanity and remorse. Who can forget the images we saw on television of soldiers and civilians getting their heads cut off by the militia, of bombs exploding in mosques, local markets, schools, or humanitarian compounds, destroying everyone and everything in sight.

Soldier’s in Iraq and Afghanistan lived with that reality on a daily basis. While I’m sure the need to quit that profession and return home was great, many had no choice but to remain. For those that did, the level of stress and pressure to stay and serve out the remainder of their tour led to their decision to commit suicide. Coming home early was not an option for many. To do so, they knew they would lose that lucrative financial incentive promised to them when they were being recruited between classes in school — money they hoped to use to help their parents desperate for money to pay their mortgages or medical bills. Those that came home for a break only to discover later that their spouses or girlfriends were now expecting a new child knew they were going to need whatever medical plan offered to them by the military. Add to that constant changes to military commanders on the field, a president undermining the recommendations of his advisers, and executive decisions that extended a soldier’s presence in Iraq by years and one can start to imagine how strained their lives must have been that they felt suicide was their only option. But are their actions such that a sitting president should not take the time to comfort those who also lost a loved one back home? Did these men and women not serve their country with valor and distinction (those that did not tarnish the uniform by commit flagrant acts of atrocity)? Were their contributions to the fight less deserving of recognition by the President?

Parents of soldiers who committed suicide claim that their sons and daughters were treated with respect and dignity by their respective branches of the military. Most of them received help and support during the preparations for the burial. Most if not all received a full honor guard, and each family member was presented with a flag on behalf of the President and a grateful nation. So why did they not receive a letter from the president offering his condolence on behalf of the country? If their commanding officers are able to write a letter talking about a soldier’s heroic gestures, as is the case with most soldiers killed in combat, why can’t the Commander in Chief?

Let’s not forget that just like the families of the over 5,290 soldiers who came home in flag-wrapped metal coffins who received words of encouragement, support and gratitude for their contributions, so must the loved ones of the estimated 192 active and non-active Army soldiers and 30 to 40 Marines who died in 2009 alone from suicide. Over 890 soldiers have taken their own lives since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s just the ones we know off. A CBS News investigation reported that in 2005, 45 states reported a total of 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s about 130 souls per week for an entire year.

The disparity between these two figures is symptomatic to a bigger problem plaguing the Pentagon, and it is an issue that they will have to address immediately if young men and women are ever expected to enlist and serve out their full tour of duty. But until that happens, in the meantime, the President, I think, should consider the following. A fallen soldier is not the only one who loses a life. A mother and father also lose a child, a wife a husband, a child a father, and a nation a soldier. Regardless of whether we find any honor in the soldier’s death, we must remember that by honoring the soldier we honor the family who also sacrificed greatly. As commander in chief, a president’s job is to honor the fallen. As President of the United States, his or her job is to thank the family for their sacrifice. And as a human being, the president’s job is to support and comfort those in need during such trying times. What better way to honor the memory of a serviceman or woman than by taking the time to write a short letter?

About 145 years ago, President Lincoln is said to have written a letter regarded by many Lincoln scholars as one of the most memorable ever written by a sitting president. In it, Lincoln thanked and consoled a mother of 5 sons killed in battle. The note was short and to the point, but it was a letter that I suspect may have had an impact on Mrs. Bixby. Suicide or not, the parents of the 192 soldiers that died this year alone would have been moved to know that they too laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

UCLA commercial lacks diversity: Oversight or Intentional

A few months ago, I saw a commercial on television during a UCLA football game promoting UCLA — my alma mater — and it made me think about my experience and the changes I have witnessed first hand over the 16 years I was a part of that institution. (Click here to see the commercial) Since graduating from high school, UCLA has been my second home. It is at the Westwood campus that I spent most of my adult life. In those 16 years of study (I received both my bachelor and master of fine arts degrees), diversity at UCLA has slowly begun to diminish. Since the passage of Proposition 209 — a law that banned affirmative action practices in education and employment — the number Latino, African American, and Native American applicants and admits has diminished in numbers. The increase in tuition stemming from the California budgety crisis has done little to alleviate the problem of enrollment.

In 2009, of the 12,098 students admitted into UCLA, 1,675 were Latino (14.6%), 407 African American (3.5%) and only 55 students claimed to be Native American (.5%). Those numbers pale in comparison to the combined 74.8% of admitted White and Asian students. According to UCLA, 10,654 Latinos, 2,753 African Americans an 317 Native Americans applied to the Westwood Campus, compared to the combined 35,563 White and Asian applicants.

And so, with only 15.7% of Latinos, 14.7% of African Americans, and 17.3% of Native Americans that applied who were admitted (26.7% of Asians and 21.3% of Whites were accepted), and with the number of applicants continuing to dwindle, why has UCLA gone out and produced a video that showcases just 3 faculty of color, and all of them in the humanities? What message is the university trying to send to the general public, especially parents of students of color? Our faculty is as diverse as our student body? Of the estimated 1,682 ladder faculty at UCLA, only 151 or 8.9% of them are minority. Surely there must have been more faculty of color to showcase, especially in the sciences. Was there not one faculty member in Math, Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, Physics or Psychology that they could have interviewed? And how about women? Were all 49 of them too busy with work to sit down and have a brief conversation about the UCLA experience? Or could it be that maybe, just maybe, none of the faculty of color wanted to participate because they really had nothing positive to say about UCLA, especially because of the direction that it’s headed?

What I saw that day was a commercial that cared more about reflecting one image of the university instead of balancing between what is truly there and the hope of what UCLA could be, thus encouraging more students to apply so that a larger pool of candidates could help bring the number of admits up. I don’t know what the future for UCLA holds. I’m not even sure if it will ever recoup the numbers it had when I was admitted a while back. One thing I do know is that if UCLA is ever going to regain its title as one of the most diverse public universities in the nation, then a greater recruitment effort must be made to ensure that its student population and faculty do not start to look the same. Should that day arrive, I suspect that many of us who have proudly called ourselves Bruins will experience some form of shame, not just because the school lost its luster, but because it was losing it when we were students and did nothing to stop it from happening.

To New Beginnings…

So I was sitting all alone in my empty apartment, listening to classic Billie Holiday, when I received an email on my Google account. Like many of you reading this, I saw the subject line and decided to send it directly to my ‘spam’ folder. What struck me odd about this particular email was that the subject line promised to change my life if only I were willing to spend 20 hours a week blogging.

As fate would have it, when I went to my ‘spam’ folder to retrieve it, my email service emptied the folder at that very moment. Was it fate? Is my luck such that I cannot get a break? Luckily, this is not the first time I receive such a message but it is the first time that I actually stop to consider it.

What is surprising about this entire thing is not that I wanted to make money, but rather whether I have reached a point in my life where I have stopped trusting anything anyone says to me primarily because their motives aren’t made clear.
If a person promises to change your life, would you embrace the idea quickly or dismiss it because you don’t trust the messenger? I didn’t know the guy sharing his experience on my email. For all I knew, opening it meant being bombarded with more ads, which would have annoyed me but enriched his life a little more. Would I have been more trusting if the person was a friend? At what point in our lives do we allow for the possibility that people genuinely want to help without expecting anything in return?

I’m sure we’ve all been battered down by promises of grandeur only to discover that all it was was a fancy ride that led no where. But what if it did? What if during that aimless drive we came upon a side road, one that leads to better roads and faster shortcuts ahead? Well, I decided to take that chance and make my first blog a promise that even if the opportunity to improve my life came from someone whose intentions were selfish, I would accept to embark on that journey even if there is no clear destination. Life is full of rest stops. And I intend to pull over whenever I can.

In this particular case, I understood that regardless of how I feel about a person’s motives, I could not just allow any opportunity to go by without finding out if it is something I can do. How many chances to improve our lives have we failed to pursue for whatever reason? Even if the person making promises of change makes his or her motives known, we cannot dismiss the underlying fact that there is potential for gain. I understand that there are limits and jobs and opportunities that one cannot take part in. But if we, if I, am to make something of my life, then I guess I need to suck it up, bite my pride, and just take a chance.

And so I have. And will. Beginning this moment, whatever comes my way, whatever journey I may encounter or be invited to, I will get on board and pray that my actions prove beneficial to myself and the community I serve. It is my hope that in doing so, I will be able to return the favor and send out my own email promising others a chance to change.

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