A recent theatrical release, The Butler, is a fictionalized story inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article about a gentleman who served on the White House staff for over thirty years. While some in the African-American community have called into question how the story was portrayed, I thought about what lessons Latinos could take away from the movie.
The history of Latinos in the United States is just as long and varied as the history of African-Americans. Some of us were here when the border lines changed, others came by boat, plane or foot. Those of us born here have sought out family stories to learn who was the first family member to come. We have also seen the evolution of the names we’ve been called, both the negative and the neutral.
We had a front row seat to the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War, as incidents aired on the nightly newscasts. We watched John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s funeral corteges as well the nightly body count from the war. We weren’t just watching, we were there, those were our men on the front lines in Vietnam.
There are two scenes in the movie I would like to highlight. The first is the scene where the older son is in a motel room with MLK. King asks Louis what his father does for a living. Louis answers, a butler. King says that they have been the brave people. People who served others in negative atmospheres and haven’t lost their souls. People who stood stoically without expressing emotion. King considered them all part of the civil rights struggle. Louis is left thinking of his father in a different light.
How many of us have been embarrassed by the occupations our parents had? Personally, my father was a stock clerk when I was born. How do I know that? It is written on my birth certificate. He was always a good father and I wouldn’t have been embarrassed if he was always a stock clerk. But there are many who feel differently.
The second scene comes towards the end of the movie. A now retired Cecil Gaines shows up at a pro-Mandela protest his son organized in front of the South African Embassy. Louis turns the microphone over to another person when he sees his father approaching. When he asks his father what he is doing there, Cecil tells him that he has come to join the protest. Throughout the movie, we have seen Cecil’s silence on his son’s activities. Cecil never really expresses his feelings abut his son’s activities, but you get the feeling that they are not positive. Now we finally see that Cecil was secretly proud of what his son was doing but couldn’t express it as long as he was part of the White House domestic staff.
At the risk of using my father as an example again, I must say that the “Don’t eat iceberg lettuce” and “Keep your laws off my body” buttons, that adorned my denim jacket in the 1970s, were given to me by my father.
The activism that characterized the 1970s is back in a big way where Latinos are concerned. Today’s hot button issues include DACA, DREAMers, and immigration reform.
Hopefully you won’t wait until you retire to get involved.