Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Dream in Color, by the Honorable Loretta and Linda Sanchez

When I was growing up, one of my dad's favorite sayings was "Don't let anybody ever tell you you're a dumb Mexican."

Our mom definitely taught us that there are times when we must stand up for our convictions and not back down.

Loretta Sanchez became my hero when she defeated the disgusting right wing extremist Bob Dornan in an upset victory in Orange County, California. Several years later, her sister Linda Sanchez was elected to a nearby district and they became the first ever sisters to serve in Congress.

As the children of Mexican immigrants, their story is obviously one of overcoming great odds and prejudice. But they have overcome those odds with grace, intelligence and great skill.

In 2008 Loretta and Linda (along with Richard Buskin) published their story, a book called Dream in Color. I love the title as much as I love the Sanchez sisters. And I always meant to buy the book. But I tend to read either ancient history or pure escapist science fiction or fantasy. The stupid turn to the discredited and failed right wing Republican agenda in the 2010 midterm election was what made me finally buy the book, because I knew it would be an inspiring story, and I needed an inspiring story. And I was not wrong in my expectation.

Many people work hard to conceal their background, conforming or projecting themselves in ways that are deemed socially acceptable, politically correct, physically desirable, or otherwise in vogue. And women and minorities are often more prone to this, partly because they're taught to aspire to some mythical ideal. Not us.

Growing up in a traditional Mexican family, we learned about the rich cultural values of our heritage, and as Latinas in Congress we draw daily strength from the lessons that our parents instilled in us. One of the strongest examples of such a lesson is the way Mom stood her ground when told by one of our grade school teachers that we should speak only English at home. She knew that being bilingual was an asset, and we have both repeatedly reaped the benefits of her foresight...

In most of the world being bi-, tri- or multi-lingual is not just an asset, it is a requirement. In Europe most people speak three or more languages. In Japan and India at least two. These are the countries America COMPETES with and our failure to recognize the need to speak multiple languages is one of several reasons (all fueled by right wing stupidity) that America is slowly, but surely, losing its competitive edge.

As for hiding one's ethnic identity, currently living in NYC where almost every ethic group has its own parade it amazes me that America would EVER want to abandon or deny its rich, amazing ethic and immigrant past and present. We are an immigrant nation and have been from day one. And that has been one of our greatest strengths. Yet Republican America wants to DENY that strong, amazing, idealistic immigrant past. I am descended from German refugees from economic and political problems in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions. And I am descended from Jewish refugees from pogroms. I am interested in, shaped by and proud of those roots. Why would I expect Mexican-Americans to be any less interested in, shaped by or proud of THEIR roots?

Dream in Color is the story of these daughters of Mexican immigrants (that word, "immigrant" that is supposed to be so horrible, but in reality describes all of our ancestries unless you happen to be pure Native American) who rose from tough, though not poverty, circumstances to become Congresswomen. What most right wingers could never, NEVER admit, is that in many ways this book is the ultimate story of the American Dream. The American Dream was, is and always will be the story of the immigrant family that came to America with nothing but dreamed big, worked hard, and achieved great things. THAT is the American dream and the Honorable Sanchez sisters are a perfect example of that dream.

I grew up in California and always found it somewhat amusing and disturbing that people saw my state as so liberal. I lived in Los Angeles where the stereotype largely held, but neighboring Orange County was one of the most conservative districts in the nation and was represented by right wing crazies like Bob Dornan, who wound up so batshit crazy even Newt Gingrich hesitated to openly support him for awhile.

So when, in 1996, a young woman named Loretta Sanchez had the huevos to run against Bob Dornan, I eagerly donated to her campaign, though I had little hope she could pull it off. But that donation was one of my most enthusiastic donations.

Loretta's reason for running, which I didn't know until reading Dream in Color, was basically because when she was pushing hard for improved education in her district, her Congressman Bob Dornan blew her off.

I next tried to make an appointment to see my Congress member, Bob Dornan, but he refused to meet with me. If I had wanted to meet with him about a defense project, he would have been all over it, but as far as I could tell, education held no interest for him. So, at that point, I went home and said, "I'm going to run for Congress..."

The first person I called was mu mom. When I told her what I wanted to do, she said, "Okay, we can do that..."

The fight was hard and Bob Dornan, a truely miserable human being in my opinion, was as nasty as could be, demonstrating just what true Republican "values" are these days.

When I won the one even knew who I was...I'd appeared out of nowhere to beat the candidates and now I was the opponent to Bob Dornan. Well, when he found out who I was he described me as a dream candidate to run against. "She can't beat me," he told the Orange County newspaper, the
OC Weekly
. "Bob Dornan [I guess like Bob Dole Dornan refers to himself in the third person] is a father of five, grandfather of ten, military man, been farried forty-one years. She has no kids, no military, no track record. I win."


Dismissing me resulted in his defeat. And when we had a rematch two years later, Dornan turned extremely nasty.

To my utter astonishment, moderate Democrat (former moderate Republican) Loretta Sanchez beat right wing extremist Bob Dornan. Bob Dornan, who would make today's Teabaggers (remember, THEY came up with that term!) like Carl Paladino seem reasonable, was ousted by an upstart Latina. Dornan spent the next year showing up to Congress anyway, claiming Loretta hadn't really won. He demanded a rematch two years later and was soundly defeated by the now incumbent Loretta Sanchez. I vaguely remember getting drunk in celebration of Loretta's second, absolutely definitive, win. I was immensely proud to have donated to Loretta's first two runs for Congress. The only reason I have not donated since is because she doesn't need my money and other great candidates do.

Within her first year in Congress, Loretta Sanchez proved her worth, despite being resented by many Republicans and despite being a freshman, in the passage of changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (that book that features so prominantly in the movie "A Few Good Men) to address the problem of rape of women in military service. In many ways the Uniform Code of Military Justice had failed to keep up with changes in civilian law regarding rape and so wound up protecting rapists and victimizing rape victims. Loretta Sanchez saw this problem for women in the military and sought to change it. She was, of course, solidly opposed by the good-old-boys network of the military and initially by the good-old-boys network of Congress. But she refused to let what was clearly an important issue get pushed aside, and to give credit where credit is due, she was helped by a Republican, John McHugh. Now I never really liked McHugh, but in this case he did the right thing, even to the point, according to Loretta Sanchez, of standing up to fellow Republican Duncan Hunter who wanted to let Loretta's bill die. John McHugh decided Loretta's bill was worth supporting and he went the extra mile for it. Together Sanchez and McHugh, against the inertia of the military, revised the military law codes to better handle rape cases. This all happened, from start to finish, within Loretta's first two years in Congress while Bob Dornan was still showing up and claiming he still represented the district.

I think this experience shaped Loretta Sachez's entire approach towards Congress. Loretta Sanchez is a Blue Dog Dem, which usually means bad things in my book, but Loretta, who, like Hillary Clinton, was once a Republican, represents a relatively conservative district and, though a Blue Dog, votes well and stands up on fights few other Dems stand up on. So I have always liked her. And her unconventional image, drawn from her Hispanic, hard working, immigrant background, has always endeared her to me.

As a Blue Dog, Loretta tends to be one of those compromisers in Congress that many progressives hate. But in judging Loretta one has to take into account her district (which is conservative) and her experience with Republican John McHugh, where through patience and determination she was able to find common ground and compromise and so pass a much needed bill. She learned the lesson then and there that compromise was possible and could accomplish important things. I think she has stuck to that view, though she has also never been one of the more conservative members of the Blue Dogs. I feel she remains true to progressive ideals though she also maintains a cooperative stance with conservatives. If all Blue Dogs were like Loretta Sanchez, we'd be much better off both as a party and as a country.

Loretta also, like Arianna Huffington, left the Republican party because of the realization that the Republicans did NOT represent her true values...didn't even represent the values they claimed to represent. Loretta Sanchez grew up in a family where one parent was a Democrat and one a Republican, so the choice between the two seemed a reasonable first:

Whereas Mom was a compassionate Democrat, Dad ended up running his own business and reading the libertarian Orange County Register, so he was very antitax and pro-Republican. Neither of them voted back then...they didn't become US citizens until [1996]. By then, like me, Dad had converted from Republican to Democrat...

I remained registered as a Republican and never really thought about it much. That was, until one night when I was flicking through the TV channels at home and just happened to catch Pat Buchanan making an inflammatory speech, calling for an end to immigrants coming to America. I was so angry that a high-profile Republican was allowed to spew that kind of hatred on national television, the very next day I registered as a Democrat.

When Loretta's younger sister, Linda, ran for Congress in 2003, I considered it a given I would donate. If she was HALF as kick ass as Loretta, it was worth supporting her. And she won, making Loretta and Linda Sanchez not only rare in Congress as Latinas (I personally know and like Nydia Velasquez, one of the other rare Latinas in Congress), but literally unique as being the first and so far ONLY sisters to serve in Congress.

Linda Sanchez, partly because she represents a solidly Democratic district and partly because of her own personality, is a more liberal Democrat than her sister. Loretta grew up with more to prove, as an older sibling, and I think it is reflected in her more conservative attitude, shaped by a greater need for financial security than social activism. They both make clear that the older siblings had a rougher time and were raised with a more traditional philosophy, but by the time Linda was growing up this was somewhat relaxed and Linda, from an early age, recognized that there were inequities in the world and that becoming a lawyer was a path towards solving those inequities. She was encouraged to become a lawyer by her older sister, but Loretta had imagined Linda using her law degree more practically, getting a higher paying job. Instead, Linda went into labor law and became a union organizer. And she was kick ass in pushing for labor reforms. When a new Congressional district was created in Southern California, Linda decided to run for it...and won. She started as the longshot, as a young Latina, but when she proved so effective that she rapidly became the frontrunner, she became the target for attacks by all the other campaigns in the primary. I get the feeling from her description in the book that this may have been one of the toughest things she had faced: a concerted attack from several other fellow Democrats.

And yet she won. I think this shows the strength of the Sanchez family, that they could turn not just one, but TWO long-shot runs for office into wins.

Like Loretta, Linda Sanchez also proved her worth within the first year, though in a more locally focused way.

One of the smaller cities I represent desperately needed funding to renovate and repave its major street, which was old and falling into disrepair. For ten years the city had been begging its former congressman to try to help get federal funds for the roadwork, but he never secured any real funding for the project. Well, when the time came, and [Congressman] Obey asked for projects, that was one of the projects I submitted. It made it into the omnibus bill, and the omnibus bill passed. That meant that after being in Congress for only six weeks I had gotten it the funding! And wheras before the city had been skeptical, I now had a victory to show them, and it was grateful.

And then, of course, Linda had to face the same obstacles that Loretta had to face as a rare Latina in Congress as well as a freshman. She relates how she frequently felt like asking people (I assume she never actually did!):

Excuse me, but did you just blow me off because I'm a woman, because I'm Hispanic, or because I'm young? Could you let me know?

Linda Sanchez has some of the best lines in the book, the lines that make me think, "YES! That is how I always wanted to say it!" For example:

Sometimes I've encountered Republicans who seem to believe that people are poor because they choose to be poor, and that this wouldn't be the case if they just worked harder. Well, that isn't true. A lot of people start with advantages that they don't even consider to be advantages and I always point this out when I get into fights...

I believe there are two kinds of people in this life. There are those who succeed and attribute all the success to themselves--"I've got mine, you guys have to get yours." And then there are those who succeed and not only credit the teachers who cared, the mentors who helped them, the bosses who took them under their wing, and the parents who pushed them to do well, but also the resolve to help the next group of people who are struggling. For the life of me, I don't understand those who fall into the former category, because the belief that they did it all on their own is just nonsense.

And right there a major FALSE Republican talking point falls by the wayside.

Dream in Color is interesting on several levels. It may not be high literature in style, but it is a very readable, straightforward description of what life is like for Latinas in America and what people can accomplish if they work REALLY hard and take calculated risks. It also provides very interesting perspectives on how Congress works...and doesn't always work. It also provides a much needed counterpoint to the hostile and nasty Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric we hear all too much, instilling a respect for hard working immigrants of ALL ethnicities.

Overall Dream in Color is a quick read, and, though perhaps not immensely profound, is very inspiring, particularly now when Democrats seem a tad demoralized.

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