How Phil Ponce’s questioning of Chuy Garcia reveals Latino elitism

My father has a joke: A bunch of Mexican lobsters are sitting in pot of boiling water.  One tries to get out.  The other lobsters grab him with their claws and pull him down.

I’m not saying Phil Ponce intentionally undermined Chuy Garcia’s mayoral candidacy when he pushed his questioning about the candidate’s son: “With respect, a lot of voters might wonder, Commissioner, … If you can’t keep your own son out of a gang, how can you steer the city away from gangs and violence?”  He asked again, “Is your son still in a gang?”

I’m not saying Phil Ponce conspired, as many people are saying, to make Rahm Emanuel look good in the debate.

The problem with Ponce’s question is that he focused on Garcia as father—not as mayoral candidate.  If this line of questioning were going to be balanced, he should have asked the mayor about his relationship with this son.  After all, didn’t Emanuel say that his son is going of to college soon if he doesn’t kill him first?  And how can Emanuel protect the city’s youth from harm if he couldn’t protect his own son from a robbery a few blocks from his home?

But, honestly, neither candidate should have been questioned about his son.

These men—Emanuel and Garcia--as individuals chose to lead a public life.  Their sons did not.

Anyone who's had teenagers or worked with young people knows that, sometimes, sadly, no matter what the caring adults in that young person’s life do, young people will make bad decisions.

I despise gang members—abhor them.

But I realize now that what is bothering me about the exchange between Ponce and Garcia is what it reveals about Latino elitism.

Growing up around 26th Street in the 80s, I remember how the better off families looked down on those who struggled financially or socially.  What I remember most about my parochial grammar school education is the elitism I saw (on picture day when we didn’t wear a uniform) and I heard (the put downs by the rich ladies on the church’s front steps when my mom, a lunch lady, took home a few left-over lunches for our dinner).

And when the same kid got in trouble over and over, or when the same kid got in trouble with gangs over and over, the parents who believed their kids were "better" looked down on the other kid's parents because, in their view, their own kids did not do “that.”

However, parents need to remember that we do not always know what our children do when we are not around.

I was guilty of elitism, too.  I looked down on the public school kids who didn’t wear a uniform to school and who walked home carrying books without book covers.  Then, my family could not afford Catholic high school tuition.  So I went to a neighborhood public high school.  One of my teachers told me I was making a big mistake.

A commentary by Elias Cepeda said that Ponce’s understanding of crime lacked sophistication.  I’ll add that the questioning lacked sensitivity.

Ponce should have focused the conversation on the issues that affected the city as a whole—not on issues that affected Garcia’s family.

I don’t know how a parent explains to him or herself a children's obsession with gangs, drugs, alcohol, irresponsibility when he or she has tried to do everything as a parent.

I don’t know Ponce’s history or struggles.  I do know, however, that he has two highly successful sons with prominent jobs in the same field he’s been in for years.  And I’m not asking him or his sons to explain if the father’s position helped them obtain their prominence.  That’s an issue between the family and the employers.  Maybe it isn’t even an issue.

To be fair, in an interview with the Tribune's John Kass, Ponce did recognize, "You can be a great parent and have lousy kids. Or you can be a terrible parent and have great kids. And the skill set in being a parent are not the same as being a mayor."  I wish Ponce would have said this in his "apology" on last night's Chicago Tonight.  As an experienced journalist and father, Ponce should have recognized in his planning and not asked the question that way.  Still, we all mess up as professionals and as people.

What Chuy Garcia’s experience reveals in this situation is that any family in our city can be affected by the ugliness of gangs.  And only those families who have stood silently in their home after an unimaginable let down asking, “Why?" and "How?” will understand.

That’s what I wish Chuy Garcia would have said.

And, then, perhaps this perspective would have lingered--instead of Ponce's moderation.  And, maybe, we could have moved forward as a city to lift more young people and families out of the unfortunate lure, influence, and consequences of gangs.

And, maybe, then we'd stop putting all our energy into putting people down.

Updated 4.2.15 at 1:40 to include the reference to John Kass's interview.

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