Service, Substance, and Sustenance:
notes toward an understanding of
voice, rhetoric, action, and decorum





Five or six years ago, a woman with whom I had grown up, who lived on my street and was my age, was arrested for drug trafficking and child neglect. This woman had run out of town, leaving her children, ages two and eight months, in an apartment with dog dishes of food and water. As shaken as I am by that incident, I am equally chilled by the knowledge that it is only by the narrowest of margins that my experiences have become to any degree different from hers. Every summer, my son goes back to that street, where his closest friend is the nephew of that woman, a child whose own father was shot down by the police, and whose mother is in jail, more often than not, on charges of prostitution. My son attends the funerals of babies who die of inadequate medical care; he is kept behind the wrought-iron bars of my mother's house, when the violence threatens to reach down from the corners, up from the curbs, to initiate or annihilate him. It is of no matter that I stay in university housing each summer, of no consequence that I each year grow further away. These things go on and on.

There is something that hides here, something I do not fully understand, that is surely killing the majority of us who began our lives between the trees and sewers on that asphalt. Something that has followed me into the university, and would have crippled me, had I continued to do battle only with those who place no credence in me, rather than with the monstrous disbelief I have been working to dislodge in myself.


I once thought of education as a glorious form of resistance. I was attracted, initially, by the promise I perceived in the potent rituals of decision-making, which I believed were founded in an expansion of the mind. I was operating, in short, under the common assumption that "smart people" controlled my world and that, if I could hone my intelligence, I might learn how it is that people come to act within their environments, rather than being acted upon. My investment in this paradigm was founded in a personal crisis in faith: a crisis defined externally by a riveting uncertainty about my own chances at survival, and internally by the desire to be someone I was not. Part of my education, for many years, has required an active resistance to the strategies toward classifications of "aptitude," "place," or "worth"; and a recognition of the need to structure new models through which it may be possible, at last, to lay bare the unkind arrogance of what passes for "knowledge," and get down to the business of what hides, what threatens, and how that can be taken apart.

To begin, things being the way they are, I had to first acknowledge that my invitation to the table was not addressed to the successful completion of this labor. Instead, as a "minority scholar," I have found myself frozen in my seat, asked repeatedly to display my invitation, and rebuked endlessly to mind my table manners.

One of my favorite synopses of this experience came from another graduate student, who told me sardonically late one evening that the goal the university has for minority students is "to make Cosby kids out of us." My delight in the truth of this was somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that I had, in fact, as an undergraduate, given rapt attention on many a Thursday evening to this televised icon of seamless integration: if Bill Cosby could be shot from an island for a segment of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, so could I.

Only later did this weekly prayer of "so can I" come to remind me of a poster widely circulated in my youth: the young Chicano beside the handsome man in full military regalia, both standing erect above the slogan, "Tú Puedes." While my brother marched off to enlist for armed service (but was rejected on a medical report), I signed up for a more rational form of defense, one that promised to enrich, not enslave: I went back to school. And I never stop hearing the voice of my brother, now locked in schizophrenia, who stood at the door when I left home, saying, "You go, man; you're better than me. You got places to go."


The academy agrees with my brother. Although, as a high school drop-out, I did not come to this table with a great deal of formal training, after ten years of "higher" education, I have been repeatedly assured that my new scholarly rhetoric is far more meaningful than the voices and expressions of the people on the street from which I came. Here, as I am "poised" to complete my doctorate, I have been cornered into the understanding that, in the academy, experience and thought are codified in adherence to a set of standards which I do not revere.

But if I give up now, if I dismiss education because it has become synonymous with academics, if I reject intellect because I can't think straight when we get strapped to canonized "theory," then I have to tell my "minority" students to turn back, too, to start over, because even the enrichment of the mind is too costly; even ideas will never belong to us.

Which is a lie. The intellectual ritualization of the university seems intent on seeing its students become morbidly entrenched in the construction of solipsistic riddles, or errantly invested in the cabling of these cryptic messages from ivy league to ivory tower. And academic decorum appears to insist that we perform this task with a minimum of resistance. Some of us do resist, but find ourselves unable to go on with our work while we are registering protests against the imposition and restrictions of academic table manners, or expressing rage against the polite debates over silver service versus social service. And that is a devastating quandary.


I will say now, however, that if we relinquish ourselves to this system - if we do not sustain our abilities to navigate the false borders between voice and rhetoric, action and decorum - we have been stripped of the very means by which we know the truth, and have been given, in its stead, an instrument of measurement that can never possibly sustain the weight of this enormous hollow.

Like many of my colleagues, I am, at every moment, every day, in danger of forgetting why I came to education, of believing that the aspirations to teach and learn are simply another false harness, another proving ground for a varrio intellectual who "survived." On those days, I believe I will move as far away from academe as I possibly can. But I come back for the books. The university houses a vast repository of materials that have enabled me to make deep and profitable work, toward formulating answers to the questions with which I am concerned. I could study outside the university, but as a Chickasaw friend of mine says, "graduate school keeps me off the streets." There exists here a physical safety which keeps me, and my children, from the dangers I survived on my street. Keeping in mind that survival, I am willing to traverse the less tangible, but equally real, danger zones of the academy.


We persist. And when we finally get to the books - we do get there - I believe we have accessed a great store of new information, on which we must be prepared to act. We have to say, now, what we have discovered, and what we mean to do about that. We must determine from which arena we are willing to speak, and to whom. At every juncture, we are tested again on the relationships between action and decorum, voice and rhetoric. If we have learned enough during our educations, we will be prepared to answer.





 "Service, Substance, and Sustenance: Notes Toward an Understanding of Voice, Rhetoric, Action, and Decorum" © 1992, 1995 by Canéla A. Jaramillo

Original Photograph © 1995 by Cynthia Martinez



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