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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Doesn’t that make a difference? Not to the microbes, it doesn’t.

I’ve always admired the writing of Morris Kennedy, long associated with Mother Trib. Now that their corporate owners have de-prioritized thoughtful writers as full-time staff members, it is a special treat to read pieces from him and other such reporters. I was especially pleased to see Kennedy’s tribute to the late Dr. John Betz in last Sunday’s Tribune editorial pages.

A USF biologist, John was a pioneer in saving the local environment and merited every one of the accolades that Kennedy bestowed. I hadn’t seen John lately – in fact, I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t sure he still was alive – but back in the seventies, we saw each other frequently as part of USF families who often gathered in Land o’Lakes. We were young, but already veterans of the anti-war movement, so we joined emerging environmentalism. When Lake Erie caught on fire in 1969, even Republican president Richard Nixon understood that things had to change if our Earth was going to continue to be habitable.

John was particularly exceptional in his dedication to change through mainstream political action. At a time when many of our leftist friends scorned that, he understood that local government mattered – especially, as we environments put it, for the “weeds and critters” at the bottom of the food chain that make life possible at the top. The decades just after World War II had brought heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, and other poisons that tainted land and water. Here in Hillsborough, a booming population without concurrent tax increases meant severe strain on ecological systems. Without any business-impeding regulations, water-renewing cypress swamps were cut down and underground springs polluted. Raw sewage routinely went straight into the bay. Sea grasses died, along with seafood.

John could have ignored this and other environmental crimes. Most professors do, encouraged by a promotion system that frowns on activism and rewards the isolated, ivory tower approach to scientific research. John, instead, got out in the street and proclaimed that ecological knowledge. And it was the first women elected to office who first listened, and who wrote the bills and ordinances that began to protect Mother Nature from her ravishers. At the county level, the pioneers were Betty Castor and Fran Davin; at the city level, Jan Platt and Linda Saul-Sena; and in the legislature, Helen Gordon Davis, Pat Frank, and Mary Figg.

My dear departed friend Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell soon followed. I got to know her through our neighborhood association, which was trying – without much success -- to prevent landfills in the valleys among the hills of Thonotosassa. After she retired from the school system, Sylvia ran a very tough campaign to become the first African-American woman on the county commission. She was motivated by the way that we had been treated by the county’s “hearing masters,” whose word was very nearly law on zoning issues.

To put that in context, after three county commissioners went to prison for accepting bribes from developers, the county – in a sincere attempt at reform – gave professional hearing masters almost complete power in zoning decisions, including those on where solid waste can go. Thonotosassa, which has a fairly large population of middle-class African-Americans, was a favorite place for trash dumping. Cam Oberting, who still is alive, led an association of largely white residents opposed to more landfills, while Sylvia led black residents. I paid dues to both, but went only to the meetings of the black group – where some people (mostly men) clearly resented my presence. But Sylvia valued it, and I hope we have moved beyond such self-segregation by now.

These fights against polluters were hard, and hearing masters made them harder. Very often, after we had worked to get our folks down to the courthouse (prior to e-mail and even answering machines), the scheduled hearing was postponed at the request of developers. They, being the “plaintiffs,” also got the first shot at the case – and often brought in so many hired guns as expert witnesses that it could be midnight before the “defense” got to speak. And if you didn’t speak, then you weren’t “a party of record” and thus could not speak when elected officials rubber-stamped the masters’ decisions at regular (daytime) commission meetings. Because the procedure was considered quasi-judicial, voters essentially lost their right to speak to their representatives on the issue, even outside of meetings.

The most egregious case of this denial of free speech occurred after Sylvia’s 1994 death. Governor Chiles appointed Sandra Wilson, also an African-American, to replace her. At the last hearing that I chose to attend, before giving up on county government altogether, I sat next to Sandra. She was off the commission by then and had returned to her job at HCC, and we were fighting still another Thonotosassa landfill. Sandra wanted to speak, but was denied – because as a member of the commission at the time of the original hearing, she was not a party of record! I talked to some lawyers at the time about taking this abrogation of free speech to the real courts, not the quasi-judicial court of the county commission, but I had other things to do with my life. And, like Sylvia, Sandra was ailing and later died.

Back to John Betz. While the growth-over-all folks spent big money to bring in “experts” who hadn’t even seen the site, John came down to the courthouse to volunteer his genuine expertise at no charge. We rarely could afford an attorney to argue our side of a case, but the big boys always had a fleet of them, as well as their paid scientists. There was one hearing I shall never forget. The young attorney had a very elitist attitude, and to him, the fact that this landfill would be privately owned made it axiomatically superior. John seemed perplexed – as indeed he might be, given the imperative for profit in anything private – but the lawyer kept repeating his point. Finally the young man almost shouted, “This will be a private landfill! Doesn’t that make a difference?” John thought a minute and replied, “Not to the microbes, it doesn’t.” I almost fell out of my chair with laughter.

* * *

By the time you read this, it will be Christmas Day, or in all probability later. I’ll be at the VA hospital, where, as I said last week, Hubby will have open-heart surgery on Christmas Eve. But our daughter will be home, and we’ll have a very small holiday celebration on the 23rd. So, although it’s on a much lesser scale than usual, I’ve been decorating and thinking about Christmas. Mostly I’ve thought about the quiet proclaimed in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and in “Silent Night” – and the noise of gunfire and bombing taking place there now. Every time I hear “Damascus” on the news, I remember that it is in Syria and think of the ancient animosities of this area, going way back to Joseph and his brothers.

You may or may not remember this Joseph, who married Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Jacob. Jacob, known for his vision of a ladder to heaven, was the grandson of Isaac, who in turn was the son of Abraham -- the figure basic to Judaism, Christianity, and after about 600, Islam. We learn this lineage in Sunday school (or used to; I’m not sure how much of the Old Testament is taught these days). I seldom noticed back then that these sons were born to fathers sans much mention of mothers, let alone sisters. And although I remembered that Abraham had concubines, I had forgotten that he also had other wives. Genesis 25 lists a string of sons born to Keturah, his third wife after the better-known Sarah, the mother of Isaac, and to Rebekah, the second wife – who still was alive when he married again. Anyway, Abraham was far from a fair father. Verses 5-6 read, “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.” The understandable result is that some Middle Easterners still feel unjustly treated.

Just a quick return now to Joseph and his father-in-law Jacob. Joseph had fallen in love with Rachel and worked seven years for Jacob’s permission to wed. Jacob tricked him, though, instead marrying off his elder daughter, Leah. Because she was wearing a heavy veil, Joseph did not know that she wasn’t Rachel, and then had to work another seven years for his true love. Yet he “loved” Leah in the physical sense, as she had a total of ten sons. Like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob also played favorites. You all know the story of his “coat of many colors” that drove the older brothers to sell him into slavery in Egypt. And thus the animosities expanded. Resentment after resentment and war after war, all because of patriarchy and its mixture of tribalism with religion.

Last year I wrote about another, much later, Joseph, the one who befriended the pregnant Mary. Several people commented on its headline: “Where were Joseph’s cousins?” As you know, he and his non-wife went to The City of David to be taxed, as he was of “the house and lineage of David.” That meant that many others of David’s descendents (from dozens of women) would have lived in or visited Bethlehem at the time, but no one offered them shelter. Presumably a whole bunch of cousins failed to make space for the birth of what shepherds proclaimed was the Son of God, and they doubtless considered their ostracism to be morally right. And finally, a cartoon that appeared in both of our dailies last Sunday. Except for a posted sign, it was wordless. Three men riding camels followed a star, only to arrive at a wall with warriors atop waving weapons. The sign below banned foreigners.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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