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Local leader represents NAACP’s changing face

fr gomezAs an associate professor of physics at Western Carolina University who specializes in astronomy, Dr. Enrique Gomez may be used to looking up at the sky, but as the president of the Jackson County Branch of the North Carolina NAACP, he also concentrates on issues that are a little more down to earth.

Gomez was born in Mexico City to an American mother of English, Swedish, and Welsh extraction with roots in North Dakota and Minnesota, and a Mexican father who passed down Spanish, Zapotec, and French ancestry that also includes the legacy of freed Haitian slaves. 

His mother was an exchange student in Mexico who became a teacher; his father worked for the Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores — essentially, the Mexican foreign service — which is charged with representing Mexico’s interests internationally and implementing Mexican foreign policy.

Those duties led to the Gomez family moving to California when Enrique was 12, where he attended high school and later graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

During college, Gomez became an active advocate for the rights of minorities and native peoples in Mexico — specifically, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who on New Year’s Eve 1993 declared war on the Mexican Government by seizing several towns in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. 

“They are a military organization even though they have very few weapons, and there were very few armed skirmishes there,” Gomez said. “It was an army made primarily of native people, Mayan-speaking people.”

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What that “army” demanded was the recognition of native lands and the establishment of native forms of government. An indigenous agrarian reform movement that almost defies political classification — think libertarian socialists with a decidedly anarchist, Marxist bent — the EZLA, as it is known by its Spanish acronym, “advocates for environmental rights, like protection from dam developments and things like that,” said Gomez.

Gomez continued his social advocacy — this time focusing on sexual assault – during grad school at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where he also earned his Ph.D. in 2006. Then, after a short stint working for Birmingham Southern College, Gomez arrived at Western Carolina University eight years ago. 

So how did the son of a teacher and a bureaucrat who came from an academic, activist upbringing end up as an astronomer and NAACP Branch President in Western North Carolina?

“The story I tell is that I was very interested in science in general. I watched ‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan when I was a kid, and I was explaining something about the stars to a girl I had a crush on in fifth grade,” he chuckled. “She suggested that I become an astronomer, and that’s when the idea first came into my brain.”

Counterintuitively, Western North Carolina is a great place to do just that; one might suppose that the same conditions that make the Smokies smoky would hinder stargazing, but Gomez insists that’s not the case. 

“If you look at maps of the United States, especially the East Coast, we have a problem with light pollution. Too many of our fixtures in businesses and homes have light scattering into the sky, and so we get a lot of sky glare in the middle of the night,” he said. “But we are blessed here in the mountains of North Carolina, because we are surrounded by mountains and natural areas that have not been developed, so if you look at a dark sky map, there’s a blank spot north of Atlanta, and we are it.”

Another blank spot north of Atlanta also loomed large on the NAACP’s map. Until recently, NAACP branches in Western North Carolina were mostly inactive or nonexistent. Luckily, this coincided with Gomez’s relocation to the area and his continuing political activism; in 2009, he shifted his attention to the national political scene. 

“Of course we do live in the South — we live with a legacy of racism, a legacy of slavery. That is something that is very real, and I started to become concerned with all of the language that was emerging in our national politics focusing on race,” Gomez said. “I started to realize that there is an unfinished business of dealing with the legacy of racism, really in the whole country. That’s where I started to become aware of the work of the NAACP.”

The Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the nation’s best-known civil rights organization, boasting more than half a million members and a heritage that stretches back more than a century. According to its website, the organization’s mission is to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination,” which its been doing since 1909. Among the NAACP’s first campaigns were anti-lynching movements in the early 1900s; by the 1950s, its persistence made desegregation decisions like “Brown v. Board of Education” possible, and by the 1960s it came to be closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement. 

Although primarily thought of as an organization run by and for African-Americans, the NAACP had only one African-American on its founding board, didn’t elect an African-American as its president until 1975, and has always been open to people of all faiths and races. This is why it isn’t at all strange that the successor to the founding president of the Jackson Branch of the NAACP — Rev. Charles H. Lee, pastor of Sylva’s Liberty Baptist Church — is also Latino. 

“Traditionally [the NAACP] has advocated for the rights of African-Americans and has a historical commitment going back to 1909 to end racism and discrimination. Of course it is an ongoing project — a multigenerational project that is not going to be finished within my lifetime — but it has to be dealt with one way or the other,” said Gomez. “So there is very intentional expansion in reaching out to other communities, such as Latino and Hispanic communities, throughout the nation.”

Gomez has been told that he is the first Latino branch president in the NC NAACP, but he’s far from alone — community activist Carmen Ramos-Kennedy was elected president of the Buncombe County Branch just months after Gomez took the helm in Jackson in January 2015, and branches across the nation count among them members from all walks of life.

The reason for this diversity in NAACP leadership has less to do with race and more to do with organizational goals, which are non-partisan and not strictly focused on any particular race; in the end, racism and economic disparity are both part of a continuing vicious cycle no matter the color of one’s skin, especially in largely-white Southern Appalachia. 

“The same struggles that the minority communities have are also actually shared with poor whites, both in cities and rural areas,” he said. 

The solution to these struggles is what Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the NC NAACP, calls “the new fusion politics,” which involves building broad coalitions with organizations that share the same goals.

“We will find allies and work with allies in both major parties, and we will also be critical and press on legislators that press on the permanent interests of the NAACP,” said Gomez. “We have permanent interests, but not permanent allies.” 

As a result, the NAACP’s message now has broadened appeal in Western North Carolina. 

“We have had several new branches that emerged in the western counties of the state,” Gomez said. “We have, for instance, Transylvania County, Jackson County of course, we have Haywood County, we have the Yancey/Mitchell County [combined branch], and we have other branches that had been somewhat inactive — like the Buncombe County Branch — that have come back in force.”

Following both the timeline and the ideology of Barber’s Moral Mondays Movement, all this regional growth and rejuvenation have taken place in just the last three years — and all of those branches, said Gomez, are majority white.

“That’s coming from the realization that we have to practice fusion politics,” he continued. “Both whites and blacks, and Latinos and native peoples in each one of those branches have started to advocate not just for the end of racism towards minorities, but also to stand up and speak for people — white people — who have been historically disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged. We see them as allies. We have a common set of causes and interests.”

For now, the grassroots work of Gomez and his colleagues seems to be a story of unlikely successes in unlikely places from an unlikely source; however, in words oft attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., “Only in the darkness can one see the stars.”

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