Apr 252011

Long before I arrived at his presentation tonight, I knew that an evening with Edward James Olmos was going to be rewarding. After all, here is my favorite actor from one of my favorite shows (Battlestar Galactica) who is a social activist coming to our campus to speak about one of my favorite topics (social justice). No matter what my expectations however, they were far surpassed by the man who took the stage tonight and shared his gifts and talent. In all it turned out to be two hours of my life that could not have been better spent anywhere else.

Leaving the house lights on so that he could see each of us, Olmos began by talking about his own identity, or more aptly identities. Thanks to my education I have long viewed race as an imperfect social construct that creates more problems than it settles, but it took Olmos to really bring this to life for me and help me appreciate the destructive power of racial identity. Olmos reflected on his identity as a Chicano; half-Mexican and half-Spanish, born in the United States. He talked about the power of an identity that was five hundred years old, commenting that he would not be who he was without this mixture of cultures, and the strength that he draws from both. But before he could be a Chicano, European or a Mexican, he had to be indigenous to the Americas, a history of forty thousand years. And even before that, he had to be Asian for many thousands of years before those people crossed the Bering Strait into North America. And of course before that, he had his roots in Africa, as do we all.

The point is an obvious but powerful one; all of humanity comes from Africa, and the reason we are “different” from one another now is because we took different migratory routes off of our original continent. What Olmos wanted us to remember was that we have more in common than we have separating us, a fact too often forgotten. He drew upon Battlestar Galactica to see how one amazing science fiction series dared to challenge us by making us think about what it means to be human, particularly when we might identify more with the machine-race Cylons than we do with humanity. And it was that show’s grappling with issues of human rights, suicide bombers, terrorism, reconciliation, and right to life versus right to choose that ultimately resulted in the cast and creators of Battlestar being invited to the United Nations to discuss those very same issues in detail.

Oh, and somewhere in there Olmos decided to have some fun with the Battlestar fans in the audience, leading us in a rousing cry of “So say we all”… three times. That was pure magic.

Olmos shifted from humor to anger in talking about the plight of indigenous peoples, of Mexicans, and other uderrepresented groups who learn nothing about their own culture growing up while being completely indoctrinated into European history and perspectives. He drew the comparison of the student introduced to hamburgers in kindergarten, who enjoys them in the beginning but then longs for pizza, only to be forced to consume more hamburgers because it is the only meal being offered. Years of hamburgers, he noted, eventually turned to boredom, to loathing, and then to hatred. Olmos drew out members of the audience who learned nothing about their own cultures growing up, people who seemed to identify with the disenfranchisement of which he spoke. It was a powerful moment to see so many affected people find someone speaking their language in so powerful, and so public a way.

Speaking again to “race”, Olmos pointed out that the concept of race has only been utilized for the past several hundred years, and initially as nothing more than a justification for killing other human beings. He decried the need for Black Awareness months and Latino Awareness months as signs of “ghettoizing” cultures that deserve more. He sharply pointed out that while blacks and Latinos get months, indigenous people don’t even merit weeks. He then implored the members of the audience to never again use race as a form of an identifier. His point was clear; there is but one race, the human race. And within the human race there are many cultures, each deserving of its heritage and history. As I stated earlier, I have long known this point intellectually. It took Olmos to help me feel the point emotionally and to make it real.

He closed with some more fun stories, one in particular about how he ended up starring in Miami Vice. Olmos is a man of principle, and he turned down amazing amounts of money despite being marginally employed because of issues of creative control and exclusivity. It took five phone calls and increasing sums of money, but what got Olmos to the show was the network agreeing to his principles. He similarly used his experience on Battlestar Galactica to create a heroic character with serious flaws. Until tonight I had simply thought of this as the product of amazing writing. Now I understand that for whatever writing there was for Admiral Adama, it was Edward James Olmos who gave the character depth and breadth, and who turned him into the type of hero that is credible and real.

After his performance my friend Jason and I stayed for the hero-worship aspect of the evening, getting autographs and photos in a long line of fans. I don’t go much in for idolizing Hollywood stars, athletes, or anyone else who has fame, unless they are putting that fame to good use. And I can’t imagine many people having more credibility on that front than Mr. Olmos; it’s nice to know that Admiral Adama is doing good works on our planet right where we need him.


On a side note… congratulations go out today to members of the Dean of Students Cultural Competence Committee, which I have had the true pleasure of chairing since its inception last year. Our team members were recognized by the Division of Student Affairs today at our annual STAR (Staff That Are Remarkable) Awards ceremony, with our team receiving with the STAR Award for the promotion of diversity. Our team worked incredibly hard to bring social justice training to our staff, to facilitate additional conversations surrounding social justice, to encourage individual cultural competence through our performance review process, to implement an environmental assessment of our offices, programs and services to determine the effectiveness of our commitment to diversity and social justice, and more. Congratulations go out to Rick Lewis, Ed McKibbin, Judy Khalilallah, Susan Whitsitt, Michael Zajac, Harriett Steinbach, Archie Messersmith, Suzette Walden, and Ashley Taylor.