"White" No More

Human Rights

In San Diego, a seaport city that is home to the Navy and retirees, the "war on terror" is making deeply disparate communities look at each other as if into a new mirror. Three months ago, an elderly Mexican-American publisher found himself giving a spontaneous course in Chicano history to rapt Iranian-American engineers in the main cafeteria at a major high-tech company.

Since President Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil," members of the professional society had been on the receiving end of dirty looks, surveillance and the beginning of Justice Department sweeps against relatives and members of the community who were not citizens.

"They were shocked -- they didn't realize what it would take to break through this," said 75-year-old Daniel Munoz, a 22-year Navy veteran and publisher of La Prensa San Diego, a bilingual weekly. "I told them, 'You're at the point the Chicano movement was in the l960s and l970s with race and immigrant bashing.'"

Iranian-Americans typically arrived here decades ago fluent in English and highly educated. "We thought of ourselves as whiter than white," said Ramin Moshiri, a father of two and president of the Association of Iranian American Professionals. As new Justice Department directives led to rough treatment and even detention of Middle Eastern men who complied with registration, a connection to the Chicano experience is being felt even more keenly.

"All these detained guys were being assumed guilty until proven innocent," said Moshiri. "This is happening and has been happening to others, to Chicanos and Blacks."

Unaccustomed to grassroots mobilization, Iranian-Americans nevertheless sent emails, painted signs, dogged city offices to obtain permits and pulled off a well-publicized downtown demonstration against the detentions, the first such event by the community in local memory.

"I told them, 'You don't need a permit for a demonstration if it's on the sidewalk,'" said Munoz's son Dan Munoz Jr., editor of the 27-year-old La Prensa. "It's not a parade. And don't do it in the dark -- call the media."

Early in January, Munoz Jr. gave space to the Iranian community for a biweekly column in La Prensa, "until the day they have their own local newspaper." The first installment by a Persian writer exhorted his generally middle-class fellows to "get involved, or perish."

The current Persian Cultural Center's magazine includes a new feature among familiar articles on dance, food and history: a pullout centerfold of the National Lawyers' Guild Know Your Rights pamphlet, translated into Farsi. It includes a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar words like "frisk," and key responses such as "I don't consent, I want to talk to my lawyer."

"If a cop stops me I like to be friendly -- I even go overboard," said geologist Ali Sadr, director of the Center's weekly Iranian School for children. "I'm embarrassed to see the centerfold has things I should have known a long time ago. Day to day you take life for granted, then all of a sudden you get a wake-up call."

Chicanos have long complained of profiling that led to being pulled over by police while driving, or of being detained on the street on suspicion of being undocumented. But civil liberties advocates say what is new about the terrorism war directives is "openly singling out persons by nationality," as Christian Ramirez, director of the American Friends Service Committee U.S.-Mexico Border Program put it.

Benjamin Prado of the watchdog La Raza Rights Coalition said his group has met with Arab and Moslem organizations. "We told them they needed to unify their issue, and that without pushing you will live in fear."

This is not the first time local communities have come together. Prado speaks at a picnic table in popular Chicano Park, near brilliant murals painted on support pylons of the Coronado Bridge -- a controversial project born 30 years ago and finally pushed through by longtime assemblymen Peter Chacon, a second generation Mexican-American, and Wadie Deddeh, an Iraqi immigrant.

In the l970s, La Prensa successfully advocated for new Persian students who were being sidetracked by a local high school.

Not all Hispanic residents feel common cause. A young Chicano university student said "Arabs" own shops in Latino neighborhoods, which can mean tension. Generally less affluent, Mexican-Americans can resent Middle Easterners' access to lawyers and other resources. "There's definitely sympathy but I don't see a mass movement of Mexicans showing support," said one longtime activist. She said some Mexicans expressed relief that "the dog is on someone else" for a change.

Cristian Ramirez looks ahead. "Middle Easterners are now having protests, the first time we've seen it. There's a long way to go with migrants from all countries to come together, but this crisis might push the merging faster than before."

Meanwhile, even economically comfortable Iranian-Americans are having the kind of dark discussions once heard among Chicanos, who only a few years ago fought back an anti-immigrant movement that suggested American-born children of undocumented parents should be stripped of citizenship.

"Will some new law say children of naturalized citizens from certain countries should not be citizens? Where does it end?" said Kazem Zomorodian, father of a young boy and owner of a civil engineering company. "I would not have thought to ask that question three months ago."

Mary Jo McConahay is a journalist and filmmaker with long experience in Central America and the Middle East.

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