Hot dogs, cold beer and fireworks feel American, but what is it to really be American? Two hundred thirty six years ago, it was a few men pulling our country from the clutches of a tyrannical government. But we've changed since the Revolutionary War.
Now, being an American is being the first in your family to attend college, or dropping out to start the biggest social networking site in the world. It's saying the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, or opting out of lunch with coworkers to fast for Ramadan. It's watching planes crash into buildings — killing nearly everyone inside — and then donating your time and money to the families of those who died.
In a year when America will vote for a president, Creative Loafing thought it important to celebrate the country's birthday by remembering that it's as much our right to march in defiance while a candidate gives his acceptance speech as it is to cast a ballot. Because defiance is as American as apple pie.
Here are three local activists keeping our revolutionary spirit alive.
THE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: LUIS RODRIGUEZ
Luis Rodriguez is the first to tell you: he never thought he would lead protests at political conventions or against big banks. He didn't know that counseling car crash victims would give him the mental endurance to help homeowners in foreclosure, or that the years he spent singing in a choir would develop a voice so booming that it would allow him to lead masses without a microphone.
For years, Rodriguez just thought he was always in the wrong place at the right time. And for years, he was.
Rodriguez never knew what kind of "pop" to expect. That's how he and his fellow OnStar employees described the information that popped on their computer screens after a vehicle summoned assistance. Silence after a pop was good — that indicated a false alarm. But usually there was a lot of screaming, crying and praying. Those calls typically ended after emergency responders arrived or after a medic pronounced someone dead.
"You hear all these stories, and it builds a mental toughness in you," Rodriguez says.
He took the OnStar job when he needed cash after graduating from Winthrop University in Rock Hill in 2001 with degrees in modern language and secondary education. He had studied to become a high school Spanish teacher but a brief stint in the classroom and ugly brushes with public-school bureaucracy convinced him to find a new career.
He followed a girlfriend to San Diego for a year but moved back home, to Sumter, S.C., to help his mother start a nonprofit that rehabilitates homes through private-public partnerships. When people couldn't afford to fix problems with their homes, like a hole in the roof, Rodriguez would step in and assess the damage, hire a contractor to estimate the cost of repairs and send the information he had collected to the state.
Though Rodriguez didn't realize it at the time, he was gaining valuable knowledge about the intricacies of poverty and homeownership, knowledge that would serve him well in a role that would cement his career — and his position as a leader in Democratic National Convention protests.
He returned to Charlotte and eventually became a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified counselor, assisting people in the process of acquiring or trying to pay for home loans. That was in 2005.
"This was when loans were going out and everything was looking rosy," he says.
It was his job to ask potential borrowers to consider additional costs they would assume in coming years, asking questions like, did they plan on having children or returning to school? Borrowers who bit off more than they could chew frustrated him.
But as history shows, they were only half of the problem. He and his colleagues started noticing clients coming in with more unusual loans, like NINA's, short for no interest, no asset. Lenders gave these loans without verifying a borrower's income. Unable to repay the loans in time, borrowers were left at the mercy of their lenders. Rodriguez served as the mediator between bank and borrower, trying to get the former to work with the latter on a practical repayment plan. But he quickly realized it was a cat-and-mouse game. At the same time he was helping borrowers negotiate with their banks, they would be rushing to foreclose. Rodriguez grew tired of always losing. He left as the housing bubble started to burst in 2006 and stayed unemployed until 2008.
"Not only was I counseling people and trying to help them avoid foreclosure, I now found myself doing odd jobs ... wherever I could, to make a buck," says Rodriguez, punctuating the last word with the force someone acquires after spending years arguing a point.
"I've worked since I was 13," the 34 year old says. "To be out of a job for the first time in my life was terrible."
But his experience as a housing counselor was anything but fruitless. It led him to pick up a new cause.
Rodriguez was involved in the birth of Occupy Charlotte and remains active in the group. He was at the Bank of America shareholder meeting protest to speak out against the dirty lending practices he knows all too well. But that day in May was also a trial run for an even bigger event: September's Democratic National Convention.
Rodriguez had just left a meeting to discuss the successes and failures of the BofA protest the day we met in early June. He and about 35 organizers from across the state congratulated each other on the big turnout and all the buzz it generated in the media, but also discussed its failures. They needed to communicate minutiae more effectively with national groups, like letting Occupy Wall Street and others know that they had made breakfast for everyone the day of the protest. That way they could avoid redundancy and spend more time on the streets. They needed to make more than just a handful of people aware of the logistics of all the protest activity so that when leaders take breaks, subordinates can take charge.
One of the few questions I do get to ask is, what's your ultimate goal at the DNC? Rodriguez smiles and shakes his head.
"It's not about the goal. It's about the fight, and I'm a fighter," says the Muay Thai kick boxer and instructor of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee's "style of no style" fighting.
Noble, but there's also a chance he hasn't thought of the goal. And why should he? Rodriguez is good at getting from A to B. He just doesn't know he's reached B until he gets there.
THE YOUTH: LOAN TRAN
It's hard to imagine that Loan Tran once hid behind the digital fortress of a blog. Now, the 17-year-old knows who she is, and she isn't afraid to express herself directly.
She ignores the passersby who glare at her buzzed head as she explains in a coffee shop on a recent June afternoon how she became an activist. You could argue it started in the 3rd grade, when she noticed she couldn't relate to the crushes many of her girlfriends had. She started talking to them about it and eventually came out to her group in the 6th grade.
"That was easy," she says, as if it were a pop quiz.
But she still struggled to fully understand herself. She started a blog in junior high to connect with people who had gone through similar experiences. In the blog, she related her sexual orientation and outspokenness to being queer.
"When I began to get exposed to LGBT politics in terms of assimilation — to assimilate or not to assimilate — that's where language turned for me," she says. "'Queer' encompasses more than sexual orientation, but also my politics and how I view the world. [I] feel an obligation to be confrontational about my identity."
Even then, there weren't enough words to explain herself to her family. Growing up in a household where the primary language spoken was Vietnamese, it was hard for Tran to explain the difference between the close heterosexual relationships common among women in her culture and being attracted to women.
It was even harder to communicate the politics of being queer.
"I quite literally didn't have the language there to identify myself," she says.
She reflects on the moment when the expression on her mother's face changed from confusion to disappointment, and now can't help but empathize.
"It's a cultural thing," says Tran, who moved to the U.S. with her mother and father 14 years ago from Vietnam.
It's just one of many profound learning experiences she's had. That empathy, and the desire to tell her story and listen to those of others, made her step away from blogging and become involved in the real world. Her friend convinced her to join the now-defunct Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice, where she enjoyed the discussing racism, sexism and homophobia with its members. When that group dismantled, Tran and its members organized United 4 the Dream, a youth-led advocacy group that fights for the rights of undocumented immigrants and their children.
She brings up her friend, Elver, who spent his 14th birthday walking across a desert into the U.S.
"People who have these stories and experiences exhibit so much courage and strength merely for being alive," she says. "It's amazing that ... they have the spirit to come together and share their stories."
THE MARTYR: ELLA MAY WIGGINS
She was 28 and pregnant with her 10th child when she was shot and killed by mill henchmen summoned by a local newspaper to shut her up. Her efforts, cut short as they were, and those of others who fought in the Loray Mill Strike of 1929 for fairer wages and fewer hours in Gaston County's textile mills, paved the way for things like lunch breaks and minimum wage.
So how come no one talks about Ella May Wiggins?
"Mill owners and families after them ... don't want to stir up strife," says Kimberley Hallas, president of the Ella May Wiggins Textile Heritage Council. "You have to remember, at one point, Gastonia was called Spindle City."
Indeed, Gaston County and much of North Carolina was built one stitch at a time by textile mill workers like Hallas' grandfather, who moved from the mountains to Gastonia to take part in the textile boom of the early 20th century. Working conditions were tough, but mill owners provided their employees with shelter, a basic necessity that was hard to come by for the working class. But the threat of death on the job was a constant, and $8 a week was hardly enough to support a family. When Fred Beal of the National Textile Workers Union caught wind of the deplorable conditions and pay, he and the union traveled to Gaston County to urge workers to protest. About 1,800 did in April 1929, demanding 40 hours and a minimum of $20 a week.
Three years earlier, Ella May had moved to nearby Bessemer City with her nine children and husband, John Wiggins, who left her when they arrived. Hallas isn't particularly proud of her great, great uncle.
"I'm acting in reparation, I guess," she jokes.
Unable to afford to live among whites, Ella May moved to an African-American hamlet and went to work at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer. The work was mentally and physically exhausting, and she had no one to help take care of her children. Four died of whooping cough within two months of each other. Devastated, Ella May went to her boss and asked for the night shift so that, during the day, she could care for the five who remained and work while they slept. Not surprisingly, he denied her request.
Grief can hinder motivation as much as it can spur it. Already an advocate of sorts — she fought segregation within the mill villages — Ella May began writing songs about the worker's strife, some of which have been covered by American folk legend Pete Seeger and others. She joined forces with the union and traveled to D.C. to plead with lawmakers to pay more attention to workers. When she returned, mill henchmen did all they could to stop her from speaking out, poisoning her home's water supply and gang-raping her eldest daughter. The Gastonia Daily Gazette, at the time in the pockets of mill bosses, wrote an editorial calling for "a hundred" to silence the opposition. But the paper was only talking about silencing one.
Ella May, her brother and a few other men were in the back of a pick-up on their way to a union meeting when a handful of cars circled them and opened fire. She died on the porch of a nearby home. The local coroner and some of his friends kept guard of her body until it was finally buried. That would be the last poetic justices to properly honor her legacy. She rested in an unmarked grave for years until a women's group erected a tombstone in the '70s that misspelled her name.
Hallas and her group are fighting to put Ella May's story in local history textbooks. They had a downtown restaurant name its meatloaf sandwich — smothered in a spicy, "kick-ass" sauce — after her. Most of their efforts to honor Ella May are met with support, but Hallas says there's still about 5 percent backlash.
"We're not here to present anybody as the villain. No good guy is ever a saint, and no bad guy is ever really bad," Hallas says. "But history is what it is. It's either a learning lesson, or it's wasted.
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