avatar
Who Are You Calling An Immigrant?


I wore the multicolored Aymaran flag of Bolivia to the May Day march in Los Angeles, the same day that Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, nationalized the oil and gas fields. It seemed right to recognize the reappearance of the indigenous in the Americas. I gazed at Marcos Aguilar, one of the UCLA hunger strikers for Chicano studies in 1993. Now he stood bare-skinned and feathered, leading a traditional dance below the edifice of the Los Angeles Times. Rather than becoming assimilated into gringotopia, he was forcing the reverse, the assimilation of the Machiavellians into the new reality of L.A. Another hunger striker from those days, Cindy Montanez, was chairing the state Assembly’s rules committee. Another UCLA student, a beneficiary of&nbsp’60s outreach programs, was mayor of the city. 

Contrary to most mainstream commentary, these protests were part of a continuous social movement going back many decades, even centuries. And yet the commentators, especially on the national level, once again summoned the stereotype of the lazy Mexican, the sleeping giant awakening. For years it was convenient to blame apathy and low participation rates on the Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, ignoring the racial exclusion that prevailed east of the Los Angeles River. In 1994, the same “sleeping giant” arose against Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187. It previously awoke in the 1968 high school “blowouts,” the 1968-69 Chicano moratorium and the farmworker boycotts, which were the largest in history, and, in an earlier generation, the giant awoke in the “Zoot Suit Riots” and Ed Roybal’s winning campaign for City Council. The giant never had time to sleep at all. 

In the Great Depression, in the lifetimes of the parents and grandparents of today’s students, up to 600,000 Mexicans, one-third of the entire U.S. Mexican population, many of them born in the United States, were deported with their children back to Mexico, their labor no longer needed. 

Out of nowhere?

There is a frightening gap between the white perception of this 50-year trauma of deportation and the experience of Mexicans and other immigrants, like the Salvadorans who were driven here by the U.S.-backed civil wars of the 1970s. Somewhere between amnesia and a self-induced lobotomy, the gap needs to be closed in the dialogue that may come of these historic protests. The mere passage of time may erase white memories and guilt, and induce acceptance among Mexicans, but it does not legitimize the occupation itself. The wound will not disappear under American flags, searchlights and border walls. 

The fundamental issue still shaping attitudes down to the present is this: Either the Mexicans (and other Latinos) are immigrants to a country called the United States or the U.S. is a Machiavellian power that denies occupying one-half of Mexico for 156 years. During the 1846-48 war against Mexico, at least 50,000 Mexicans died. The fighting took place across many cities considered pure-bred American today; in Los Angeles, a revolt temporarily drove out the U.S. Army. Guerrilla resistance by Mexican fighters left a mythic legacy of those like Joaquin Murrieta and Tiburcio Vasquez, names still alive among Mexican-American students today. Meanwhile, The New York Times was declaring in 1860: “The Mexicans, ignorant and degraded as they are, [should welcome a system] founded on free trade and the right of colonization so that, after a few years of pupilege, the Mexican state would be incorporated into the Union under the same conditions as the original colonies.”

After unilaterally annexing Texas in 1845, despite massive protests, the U.S. president sent troops 100 miles into what previously was Mexican land. When the Mexicans retaliated, the U.S. declared war on the pretext that Americans had been attacked on American soil. When it ended, the U.S. took 51% of Mexico’s land, including California, where the discovery of gold had been kept secret from Mexican negotiators. At least 100,000 Mexicans and an additional 200,000 indigenous people lived on those lands. Ever since, those people and their descendants have lived in a split-consciousness similar to that of African-Americans described in W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.” Each new generation of immigrants fuels that consciousness all over again. 

Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the imposed settlement of the 1846-48 war, the inhabitants of the occupied territories were granted legal, political, educational and cultural rights as citizens, not as immigrants. Some of the earliest official documents of California were required under the treaty to be printed in Spanish and English. This treaty, which was unenforced, became the basis for later movements stretching into the 1960s, movements that gave the Southwest an Aztec name (Aztlan) and demanded the return of former land grants. It was not unlike Radical Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War when Gen. Sherman’s official promise of “forty acres and a mule” was withdrawn. 

Today’s demonstrations are not demanding implementation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Modern Mexican-Americans have made the legalization of undocumented workers as United States citizens their consensus demand. But there remains an unspoken difference between two states of mind regarding the meaning of the border. In every generation, immigrant workers and youth have claimed their American rights without abandoning the memory of their deeper historical ones. 

A significant number of white Americans, especially among the elites, still hold to nativist definitions of American identity, in contrast to those multinational corporations that tend to be more interested in cheap foreign labor than in keeping American white.

Conservative journals like the American Outlook publish articles glorifying “the Anglosphere” as the standard of globalization (March-April 2001). Kevin Phillips is quoted in the article as still longing for an American culture whose “core thought is a kind of English revivalism.” Regarding this month’s demonstrations, the black neoconservative Thomas Sowell has criticized the “demanding” and “threatening” tone of “people who want their own turf on American soil…” (L.A. Daily News, April 29, 2006). 

No one lends an Ivy League luster to the Minuteman Mentality more than Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington. A proud “Anglo-Protestant,” Huntington previously advocated the “forced urbanization” of the Vietnamese peasantry into a “Honda culture” as a formula for ending the nationalist uprising. In the&nbsp’70s, he complained that an “excess of democracy” threatened Western authorities. More recently, he formulated the strident doctrine of “the clash of civilizations,” decreeing that Islamic culture is incompatible with democratic civilization. Finally, he has weighed in on “The Hispanic Challenge,” arguing that Latino immigration is “a major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States” (in Foreign Policy, March-April 2006). Huntington argues that Mexican-Americans are too close to their traditional culture to become assimilated as patriotic Americans. By this he means, of course, that they cannot become imitation WASPs, whose identity he sees as basic to the American nation. For Huntington, assimilation seems to mean submission and disappearance into the master culture, a viewpoint still held by many. We defeated you, and now you should become like us. 

Largely forgotten in the current debate, too, are those among the elites who still consider Mexico itself a strategic long-term threat. The late Caspar Weinberger, a secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, wrote in 1998 of planning for a theoretical “next war” against Mexico, opting for the military option in case “it becomes necessary to go down in and try to catch [a] rebel leader in Mexico and restore democratic rule to Mexico” (interview with “Chuck Baldwin Live,” Feb. 17, 1998). The Harvard historian of Chiapas, John Womack, has written that in the 1990s “the US government, in particular the Defense Department … wanted ‘low-intensity’ warfare in Mexico” (“Rebellion in Chiapas,” Harvard, 1999). 

But the U.S. has historically been the destabilizing force in Mexico, most recently with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has flooded the country with corn and other products and replaced indigenous manufacturing with the maquiladora economy, thus displacing at least hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many of whom seek survival in el norte. Perpetuating the cycle is absolutely crucial to neo-liberal economics. But it also perpetually stimulates rebelliousness, in fact and memory, among those who take to U.S. streets today, and who shortly will be the urban majority in a new America.

As people of color, mainly immigrants, edge closer to majority status in key states, their relatives to the south are becoming nationalist, populist majorities in country after country, with interests that sharply conflict with the disintegrating U.S. Monroe Doctrine of 1823. If the populist mayor of Mexico City is elected president of Mexico this fall, NAFTA itself will die or be re-negotiated. This is the first time in many decades that the interests of Latinos in the U.S. are closely converging with the governments and people of the nations of the south. As seen even in the recent international baseball championships, the willingness of America’s major league Latino players to join the lineups of their homelands shows the fluid nature of borders and solidarity. A policy beyond the Monroe Doctrine will have to be crafted for the United States, with Latinos in the lead. As Evo Morales of Bolivia is suggesting, “another annexation is possible,” the annexation of the United States into peaceful coexistence with Latin America. 

Some would argue that America must simply follow the path of previous immigrant generations, like my Famine Irish ancestors. It is true that the slum-dwelling Irish, Jews and Italians rose in time to the middle class, and the same future may lie ahead for the new immigrants. We can see signs of the past in the growing ranks of Latino trade unionists and mayors and other politicians. But the difference in the histories is race and class. If neo-liberalism has failed to widen the American middle class since 1973, how will it expand to provide decent jobs for the aspiring immigrants in today’s underclass? Is there another New Deal just over the horizon, or a hardening defense of the status quo? 

Huntington’s Anglosphere is dying, if only through demographics. It is a matter of time–of when, not whether. The newcomers have neither the need nor the capacity to assimilate into a declining Anglosphere. They will remain multicultural of necessity, the hybrid multitude arising from the depths of empire and its resistance. The real question is how the rest of America, the rest of us, can assimilate and find belonging within all the Americas, where so many flags are fluttering in the gusts of self-determination.

 

 

Leave a comment