Have you ever heard the word gentrification? I hadn’t until a year or so ago when a friend from Twitter mentioned the word. The tweet read, “The luxury condo gentrification of America is a continuation of manifest destiny.” I probably blankly stared at the tweet for a bit, mildly trying to piece together it’s meaning before scrolling on to more palatable material, but the word always stuck with me.
I had heard it mentioned once more towards the end of high school. This time I looked up the word’s definition and it changed the way I understood the world around me. Perhaps you know the feeling as well, the feeling of finally having the word to describe what’s happening in the world around you.
Gentrification, by its dictionary definition, is the process of rebuilding in order to accompany an influx of middle-class or affluent individuals into deteriorating areas of a city that often displaces poorer residents. I had seen this happening in my hometown and chances are you’ve seen it in your own hometowns too.
If a corporate branch buys a block in a run-down neighborhood in order to exploit the environment and local workforce, that’s gentrification. If a college bribes the local homes on the fringe of campus into selling their historic residences in order to build a new science center, that’s gentrification. When you buy clothes from Nike and Hollister in what were once historic Brooklyn factory buildings, you’re buying the products of companies that have no afterthought of their reckless retail rationale.
The reason why I’m bringing this topic up is because I’ve recently discovered what I believe to be gentrification’s predecessor, a brutal ancestor which I’m certain is a root of what we see today in our small towns and big cities alike.
The parallel bloomed from the curriculum of an English reading assignment. We, the class, were reading the letters Columbus had sent from the Indies to Ferdinand and Isabella after he had grounded his ships upon the coast and encountered the natives. The way that Columbus described the land, the opportunity and the people who watched intently as the caramelskinned Spanish plunged their homeland’s flag into the beaches was beautiful. That’s the extent with which the beauty lasted.
Columbus states in his recounting of events that none of the natives seemed to protest his sailors claiming the land by placing the Spanish flag on the shoreline, but what choice did they have? How were natives, who were in shock and awe of the Spaniard’s customs, so much so that they revered them as gods, supposed to refute this gesture of reclamation when they didn’t have the wherewithal to understand that this was the beginning of their subjugation?
And so, my original love with the flowery poetics in which Columbus described the variety of palm trees he documented from his leathertrimmed cabin turned into quiet disillusionment. But it also served as the impetus for so many connections to 21st century life. It brought to light the question of whether we, in the sense that we are part of a country, are doomed to repeat the same misfortunes of pillaging, of striping far off lands of their natural resources and cheating the natives out of their own customs and way of life, with the exception that it occurs in different countries under various exploitive measures.
In my English class, it wasn’t until a writer by the name of Bartolome De Las Casas came to fruition that the atrocities of the Spanish conquests became evident. De Las Casas documented the atrocities, but he did so in a manner that allowed him to still thrive as a bishop under King Ferdinand. He was weak in that he did not disassociate with the Spanish Crown, but merely reported his findings in hope that laws would be drafted in order to prevent the prolonged torture of these gentle natives who were being massacred and brutalized by the Spanish conquistadors.
In many ways, the writings of De Las Casas parallel Sinclair Lewis and Margaret Sanger’s compositions on social concerns, but deep within De Las Casas’ work there is an air of despair, a prophesizing tone that suggests this will always be the fate of humankind. Either conquer or be conquered, but what if there was another way?
As we read over these works, I couldn’t help but think that we, as a class, were missing out by only focusing on the text in the sense that it applied to a specific time frame and not the overarching reality that this brutish style of asserting authority and crushing opposition is still very much alive and well today. I will say, while we’re on the topic, that the best discussions I’ve had in college thus far have been with professors who encourage their students to apply the lectures of that day to tomorrow’s world, not just the world in which it happened. In all honesty, what is the aim of an education that does not teach you to synthesize past events while dissecting those past events’ modern day ramifications?
The writings of De Las Casas where natives were forced against their will to dive for the pearls that the Spaniards would wear around their necks, roasted over pits of fire for no reason other than inhabiting the land, or were thrown into spiked mass burials in the ground to excruciating deaths are comparable to the actions of terrorist insurgencies like Boko Haram and Isis, but they’re also comparable to U.S. actions both past and present.
As Americans I think it’s safe to say that we are culprits of a collective deflection on behalf of our nation’s imperialistic tendencies. We have a reputation of pushing the blame off on other nations. We don’t accept that we, many years after the Spaniard’s conquest, played a large part in setting up puppet democracies in Latin America.
The Latin American nations are nations whose presidents, we have been told, were cowards in the face of economic imperialism. We forget that these third world countries, which we exploit, are poor places that are rich in resources. And perhaps if we didn’t strip Latin America’s land of its natural riches and leave the present day natives to fend for themselves in the aftermath, maybe we wouldn’t see infomercials broadcasting their decomposing tin houses to the few of us who stay up late enough to watch their plight. Because, if there’s one thing American’s don’t like, it’s having to see suffering in between their reality television shows.
And when these people, these Latin Americans, come to our country, it’s not to smuggle drugs or rob stores and it’s not to rape and pillage. They come because they’re trying to escape the massive inflation that was caused by American corporations in Latin countries. It doesn’t have to be this way.
America will not cease to exist simply because we grant basic standard of living rights to the young hands that stitch our shirts. Our enemies are not the Hispanics or the Latin Americans, our enemies are the politicians who vote behind closed doors to deport immigrants seeking asylum, along with oligarchic businessmen, fake liberal politicians and warmongering generals whose conservative ideology sends our youth to die in economically-fueled battle.
We can’t change our past, but the future is here for the shaping. The people who aren’t working to see a better tomorrow are the biggest enemies of progress. They are lethargic roadblocks on a race toward change. Stay away from them.
We can start to implement change by realizing that gentrification is neo-Colonialism. It’s displacing thousands of Brazilians to construct the stadium for FIFA’s World Cup. It’s pillaging the Guatemalan countryside for coffee beans and exploiting native laborers so you can have a $6 cup of coffee at Starbucks. It’s not knowing or having control of when the embargo will stop Cuba, or when the bombs will stop dropping in Vieques. Protest it and it just might stop, question what you consume and you’re helping to stymie another demonic subtype of capitalism.
Emma Giering is the voices editor for The Spectator. She can reached at email@example.com.