The whole curious story began one evening when Harvard’s Conservative Student Union held a mass meeting in a local beer chute. The membership both agreed that the university’s practice of affirmative action had gone too far. In particular, it irritated them that the Native Peoples Impressment Office had recruited as students a hundred thirty-seven Tloxyproctyl aborigines from the rain forests of the Amazon Basin. For one thing, the Tloxyprotyls required heated loin cloths in winter, which came out of funds for students’ activities. For another, they spoke no language known to philologists and so had been put in the People-of-Color Studies Department, where nobody else did either. The young conservatives, elitist to the core, thought this absurd.
Yet they could have tolerated it. But then the Diversity Enforcement office declared Casava-Awareness Week, and required students to learn to dig cassava with pointed sticks so as to better understand native cultures. There were no cassavas in Massachusetts. The sociology department, in a spirit of promoting acceptance of downtrodden native peoples, and having nothing to do anyway, canceled classes for a week so that its students could make paper-mache cassavas to bury. The students, now aware of cassavas, could dig them up.
This was too much for the insensitive conservatives. One was studying particle physics and didn’t have time to be conscious of tubers. The other, majoring in classical languages, regarded the Tloxyproctyls as barbarous savages. This, being self-evident, could not be mentioned in a university.
Anyway the budding reactionaries spent the afternoon devising a fraudulent manifesto that they emailed to department heads and to the nation’s major newspapers. In it they alleged, with much indignation, that Harvard was discriminating in favor of the Tloxyproctyls to the great disadvantage of the Tlacuaches, who were a South American ethnity with claims to unearned preference equal to those of the Tloxyproctyls.
“Not one Tlacuache is even enrolled; there are no Tlacuache professors; and thus there are none on the tenure track. This is clear discrimination against these age-old authentic inhabitants of America.” The manifesto was signed by the Gay, Lesbian, Bifocal, Hydrocephalic and Transgendered League, which didn’t exist. Probably.
The two boys regarded this as mildly amusing, as perhaps it was in an adolescent fashion. They returned to their studies and forgot about it.
However a junior editor at the New York Times, minding the desk for the weekend, saw the manifesto. Having recently graduated from Berkeley, she regarded social remediation as the reason for existence of the Times, as well as pretty much everything else.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In the Chicana, Lesbian, and Brutalized Aboriginals Department was a girl name Maria Hernandez Maldonado. She was the only daughter of a rich banking family in Guadalajara, Mexico. She had taught herself to read at the age of two and had been discovered by psychologists at the University of Guadalajara to have an IQ of 173. The university had recruited her hard and she had planned to attend.
However, she heard that the Native Peoples Impressment Office, which had lots of money, was going to be interviewing preliterate indigines in the Sierra Madre Mountains. No dummy, she figured a free ride at Harvard was better than paying at U Guad. The education might not be as good, but you made much better contacts.
For two weeks she didn’t bathe. Then she donned a beaded dress she made from a duffel bag, strips of rotting leather, and feathers from an old hat of her mother’s. Then she went to the Indian village to be interviewed. For a few pesos she gained the cooperation of the Indians, who had no idea why these strange gringos were there. Some said they were related to the sun god. Other Indians from the south said this wasn’t a good thing.
Maria babbled to the diversity wardens in broken Spanish mingled with the words of an American rap song that she repeated in Pig Latin. The effect was as she expected. The interviewers assumed that she was speaking an incomprehensible Native Language. She later found that she could achieve the same effect without the Pig Latin.
On the standardized test they gave her she carefully got all of the questions wrong to show that she was academically hopeless and therefore authentic. (She almost overdid it. A note in her file said, “Sometimes forgets to breathe—may need a respirator.”)
She settled in at Harvard, going daily to classes in colonialism and discriminatory social constructs. At night she read Kant in the library when her professors were least likely to catch her. This she found to be touchy. There were two other students in the department who could read, and they too did so secretly. Whenever a prof showed up, they began drawing shamanistic stick figures or, in Maria’s case, making autistic movements with her head. In this way she maintained her academic qualifications.
Still, she began to worry that she was suspected of elitist scholastic tendencies. If caught reading philosophy, she would lose her authenticity and thus her funding. It was then that the New York Times broke the story, “Harvard Discriminating Against Tlacuaches: None on Tenure Track” Maria of course knew that the word was Mexican, or more correctly Nahuatl, for “possum.” Harvard didn’t. The administration assumed that the school must be discriminating since they had no idea what a Tlacuache was. In any event they couldn’t find any on campus. This was prima facie evidence.
Maria saw her chance. Scouring the city, she actually found a pet store with a possum for sale. It seemed that, if hand raised, they made agreeable enough pets. She bought the little beast and began taking it to class. It usually slept in her book bag. Her idea was that if the school was desperate for tlacuaches to prove its commitment to oppressed people, having the only one on campus would keep her on the gravy train.
The problem was that the faculty thought that she was the Tlacuache, and the possum some sort of totemic animal of a religious nature. None of them had ever seen a possum or, for that matter, a cow. They were pretty sure that sufferers from discrimination were usually people, if sometimes only barely, and not animals. Further, Maria was brown. She must be some kind of third-world wog and thus a victim of something.
The Times hammered away. The networks picked up the story. They didn’t know what a Tlacuache was either, but the damning evidence was that none were on the faculty. Officials of the school went into hiding, sensing a career-ending disaster. A reporter for the Times managed to push into the office of Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, hoping to get comments. After fifteen minutes of waiting, she discovered that he was hiding behind the door.
There was only one way out. The school announced that Maria, their only Tlacuache, was henceforth on the tenure track. That she was a freshman didn’t matter. Fifty million dollars was voted to seek other Tlacuaches. A committee was appointed to discover what one was. Maria went back to Guadalajara, having decided that gringos were crazy. Out of respect for the cultural traditions of the new (and as yet unfound) faculty, who of course would want their totemic…well, whatever the thing was with the tail…desks were ordered with comfortable cages and….
To be continued. Practically everywhere.