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Mexicans in America

Some years ago, with the publication of my first book, I became notorious in certain American academic quarters for my opposition to bilingual education and my celebration of assimilation—the child’s coming to think of himself as belonging within a society of strangers.

I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture. But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.

Americans have tended to abrogate to economists the question of the costs and the benefits of illegal immigration. But, surely, beyond how much Betsy Ross is willing to pay for a head of lettuce, there is the question of morality, there is the question of Mexico. How much of Mexico are we willing to take within our borders? I believe the question might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist.

Mexico is a society formed by an incursion into the New World of the Spanish Catholic counter-reformation. America is a society formed by the flight from England of low-church Protestants.

Mexicans are a cynical people, you will find—sweet, but cynical. Their cynicism derives from the notion of Original Sin and the sense that humans fail inevitably. Mexicans are patient with this knowledge, charmingly so in some instances (lard, beer), dangerously so in other instances, as when Mexicans tolerate civic corruption. It is no coincidence that Mexican border towns have become the fiefdoms of drug lords.

Americans are a hypocritical people—nice people, but hypocritical. Americans prefer unknowing. They believe innocence clings to them by election. Americans prefer to ignore the correlation between our need for drugs and the creation of a vast criminal economy that stretches from Afghanistan to Bolivia to Tijuana.

Mexico represents a special annoyance to the United States because of proximity; because Mexico is forthright in reminding America of the corruption of our past. In the 19th century, Americans were illegal immigrants into Mexican territory. The United States stole the Southwest from Mexico because the United States wanted the Southwest, a desire we unrolled with great mumbo-jumbo and called Manifest Destiny. Everything Americans want to say about illegal immigrants today, history can also say about us.

From his minaret in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Samuel P. Huntington, the Albert J. Weatherhead III Professor at Harvard, peers across the brown Charles River and trembles for the future of America. Professor Huntington is most famously a phrase-maker. His famous phrase was the title of his book, The Clash of Civilizations—the book that gave the world a simplistic, albeit thrillingly dark, description of an intransigence between the secular West and the Islamist East. September 11th made the professor a prophet.

In his latest book, Who Are We?, Huntington describes an America under siege from Latin American immigrants. His America is a kind of little England, a demi-demi Eden with pudding for dessert and “Masterpiece Theatre.” Forget the French Revolution; forget the Dutch; forget Spain, obviously; forget the Massachusetts Indians who rescued the Puritans from winter; forget the African slaves who created the wealth of a young nation. According to Professor Huntington, “Anglo-Protestant culture has been central to American identity.” There are no ironies in Professor Huntington’s America. There are no ironies because there are no dialectical meetings. There can be none. America was settled by the British, and British it should remain.

I suppose I object to Huntington’s nativism more as a Roman Catholic than as a Mexican-American. Even so, as a Mexican American I roll my eyes when Huntington credits England with the American work ethic and implies that a darker race is incapable of equal industry.

The American objection raised against illegal Mexican workers—notably from the economist George Borjas; from C. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans—acknowledges the fierce energy of Mexican laborers, a work ethic that undermines the wages of the native working class, and that is outperforming the native working class.

Another academic, Victor Davis Hanson, distinguishes himself among disgruntled white voices from the nativist bookshelf, because he is a farmer. Hanson has worked alongside Mexican peasants in California. He knows the fury of their labor. Hanson grouses when a drunk Mexican kid runs a car into a ditch on Hanson’s property and abandons it there—a scene John Steinbeck would have treated as tragic and comic. Hanson sees just another mess to clean up. He is not wrong. He is ungenerous.

John Steinbeck had a generous heart. In The Grapes of Wrath he describes California’s moral outrage against the Okies:

Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

Hanson doesn’t see beyond his own grievance, nevertheless Hanson sees clearly enough that America’s native born children—the white and the brown who prowl the mall in Fresno in tank tops and on cells—are incapable of matching the Mexican’s toil because they do not feel the Mexican’s desperation.

Without exactly intending to do so, Hanson reminds me that the debate over illegal immigration will end up less concerned with the virtues of the Mexican peasant worker than with the worker’s Americanized children who rush to take on all the demerits of America; who are, in fact, American children.

Rather than credit our American work habit to England or to Calvin, we might better wonder why it is we still describe America only by reference to Reformation England and Royalist Spain (as I shall proceed to do here). Mexican Americans have the bad but telling habit of naming gringos “Anglos.” So-called Anglos name Mexican Americans “Hispanics.”

Hispanic. In all the video footage I have seen of people crossing illegally from Mexico, of people arrested, the faces look more Indian than Spanish. Most of the illegal immigrants from Mexico may be mestizo, racially, but Indian features predominate. And isn’t that curious? The Indians are illegally coming into the United States. Indians will always wander in the Americas and they should.

One lasting effect of illegal immigration, I believe, is that we will come to see America within the Americas. TheNew York Times in a feature story (August 4, 2006) describes the sense of dislocation many Americans in Southeastern states are feeling with the sudden appearance on the landscape of so many immigrants from Latin America. The black and white landscape of gothic memory is suddenly rendered unrecognizable. It may not look like what Faulkner described, but I bet it looks a lot more like what de Tocqueville saw. Brown illegal immigrants with Indian faces may usher the Georgian and the Virginian to a recognition that they now live within the New World—an illegal idea—and not in some distant colony of England.

There attaches to Mexico and to the Mexican in America a legend of illegality. Any American kid at the black-and-white cowboy movie understood why the bandit needed to get to the Mexican border. The outlaw would be free in Mexico, because Mexico is so thoroughly outside the law. In the updated (and eroticized) cowboy movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” Jack Twist takes his homosexual desire to Juarez, where Mexico consoles him in a dark alley.

For a long time, Mexican border towns have ministered to Americans who slipped over a line to relieve themselves of sanctions. Anything we wanted that was illegal on the American side of the line—liquor, gambling, abortion, divorce, whores—Mexico provided. Mexico was discrete; the American zipped up and returned to the daytime virtue of the United States.

For a long time, Americans have been similarly complicit in transactions for illegal labor. Americans were not as honorable as the Mexican madam, however. Every once in a while, an employer would call the cops on his own workers—just before payday. Or, having used Mexican labor for a generation, America would suddenly decide to go clean and deport vast numbers of Mexicans—many thousands in the Depression years—and then we found, with World War II, that we needed Mexico’s labor again.

A great deal has changed in America since the government-licensed “bracero program” of the ‘40s and ‘50s brought Mexicans to the United States for seasonal labor. By the 1960’s, immigration laws no longer discriminated in favor of Europeans. By the 1960s, entire Mexican families followed in the path of the father or the older brother.

The majority opinion in America is that Mexicans illegally in the United States should not be given citizenship. Mexicans broke the law, Americans say, playing the victim. As regards Mexican labor, America plays both victim and siren.

A mood of Protestant Reformation is sweeping the country. The fear of illegal immigrants along America’s southern border has increased proportionally as America’s support for the war in Iraq has waned. Americans feel a need to cleanse the country of illegality. September 11th makes that dream of cleansing urgent. We went to war in Iraq to play the actor in history rather than the victim. The wounded nation wanted a war movie with screeching skies and exploding earth and apocalyptic diction. But with the passage of years, after the daily news of car bombings, IED’s, the growing tally of war dead and maimed, and with images of hateful, ungrateful brown mobs protesting America’s presence in their cinderblock neighborhoods, Americans have grown skeptical of our ability to will a democracy onto a landscape we do not understand.

So we resort to our own desert. The anger we lately tapped to hunt the Arab terrorist, we now direct toward the migrant worker. The illegal immigrant becomes bin-Laden’s doppelganger. In order to turn our familiar use of the Mexican peasant into a fear of the Mexican peasant we have had to internationalize him. The migrant has illegally crossed an international border, we say.

In the end, this conflation of the cynical and the neurotic, this neurotic blurring of the peasant-worker with the terrorist could have the effect of creating exactly what America says it fears. If we are unable to distinguish the terrorist from the migrant worker, Americans will end up isolating illegal immigrants and their children from the mainstream, encouraging the adults to see themselves as mired in hopeless illegality, and their children to see themselves as off-spring of the undocumented, thus also criminal. And we will have Arabian Nights on a larger scale than those we witnessed last summer in Paris.

We do not acknowledge the trespasser as someone who is seeking to cross an economic border. America spends precious little of its affinity for biblical language and allusion on the plight of the illegal laborer. On Mexican hillsides, the beatitudes are as real and as plentiful as cardboard shanties. The Mexican peasant has the advantage, if you will allow me to call it that, of coming to America from a Catholic culture that honors suffering; that sees suffering as holy, and poverty as blessed, and therefore accords the poor a position (exactly opposite to the middle-class ethos of American Puritanism) over the middle class.

My own eyes tell me that Mexicans are not dishonored by their poverty, nor are they bent and unwilling to meet my glance. They show up for work early, and they stand outside the café on Fillmore Street as patient as cats in the dawn. Yesterday, I saw two young men, waiting in front of a renovated Victorian house, with their tools arranged in buckets. Their tools were hard-won and well-kept and ready. These were ready men.

Since America will not honor the poverty of the Mexican worker in theological terms, we should at least be clear that the Mexican is such a good worker because of the strength of the Mexican family. Mexicans work for each other; that is their reason for working.

On the other hand, I have heard Mexican astonishment at the kindness of strangers in America. The stranger gave me some money. The stranger gave me a ride in his truck. The stranger gave me some water. Whereas in Mexico, all such generosity takes place within the family, in America the generosity among strangers is often easier and more common than among relatives, and this amazes the Mexican.

America is a country where children are raised to leave home, and each generation is expected to seek its own way. The great pronoun of the United States is the Protestant pronoun—the “I”. America teaches its children independence and the bravery of the solitary path. The burden of life in America is loneliness. Not coincidentally, Mexican women, illegally in the United States, have been hired into the cold heart of America to sit with the young and the old.

The children of Mexican migrant workers, who are two or even three generations into this country, are faced with competing pronouns, and struggle to reconcile them. On the one hand, the Mexican American is expected to live within a family whose emotional architecture draws the child away from the window. On the other hand, America presents the child with an open door. As long as you understand this grammatical dilemma for the child struggling between the “we” and the “I”, any statistic you want—on Mexican American gangs, early marriage rates, suicide attempts, black-brown tensions, high school drop out rates, military heroism—becomes coherent.

I am a generation removed from the Mexican working class. My parents, who were legally here in the United States, were never called, within hearing of their children, a disgraceful burden to America; were never called an affront to their adopted country; were never called a drag on the morale on the United States of America.

I think no other children of poverty hear—on poisonous talk radio, even from the floor of the Congress—what the children of parents illegally in the United States are forced to hear. The contribution of illegal lives is never counted—never—as praise or admiration or courage or virtue of any kind. It is as though America, having benefited from illegal labor, pretends that the transaction was one of middle-class benevolence. Mexicans should be thankful for a month of cheerless eight-hour shifts, standing there waiting for the old lady to get off the commode. The odd thing is that they are thankful!

As I watched the proliferation of mass demonstrations across the country last spring, I noticed nuns and priests; lots of comic sombreros. I saw Mexican flags—a typical, humorous Mexican thing to do, to wrap yourself in the flag of Mexico, in order to insist on your desire to remain in the United States. I noticed families principally, parents and their children.

It was the first time I had seen the children of illegality demanding that the United States show respect for their parents. It was the first time I had seen illegal parents, standing fearlessly in public with their children. I tell you it was a momentous time in the history of the Americas. I hope you saw it.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Richard Rodriguez’s Stream of Consciousness by Victor Davis Hanson

    Victor Davis Hanson recounts the proposals from his book Mexifornia, and sets out a biting, detailed reply to Richard Rodriguez’s lead essay. “Here he has sadly advanced no real argument,” Hanson writes, “but instead offers only a melange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.” Hanson charges that Rodriguez, writing from his tony San Francisco haunts, offers only a cartoon version of his and others’ work, and fails to directly face the troubling economic and social consequences of unlawfully resident Mexicans in America evident to Hanson in the San Joaquin Valley.

  • Seeing Mexican Immigration Clearly by Douglas S. Massey

    In his reply to Rodriguez, Douglass Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University, writes that “Mexican immigrants are routinely portrayed as a tidal wave of human beings fleeing an impoverished, disorganized nation who are desperate to settle in the United States, where they will overwhelm our culture, displace our language, mooch our social services, and undermine our national security… This profile, however, bears no discernible relationship to the reality that I know as a social scientist.” Massey, drawing on his decades of research on Mexican migration, argues each element of this picture is false, and has exacerbated the problems of Mexico-U.S. immigration.

  • The Intergenerational Assimilation of Mexican Americans by Stephen J. Trejo

    How well are Mexican immigrants and their offspring assimilating? In his contribution to this month’s discussion, University of Texas economist Stephen J. Trejo lays out the latest findings. According to Trejo, “Mexican Americans are not too far off the path of intergenerational assimilation traveled by previous waves of European immigrants. During their first few generations in the United States, Mexican-American families experience substantial economic and social mobility, and their actual progress is probably even greater than what we see in available data.” However, a slow rate of educational attainment remains a “critical problem” that may delay the full integration of Mexican Americans.

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