You are here

Richard Rodriguez’s Stream of Consciousness

Before replying to Richard Rodriquez’s excursus, let me reiterate proposals advanced in Mexifornia, a book published three years ago, and in a series of essays that followed.

The remedy for the present illegal immigration mess, for both immigrants and America the host, I think should focus on the three goals of reasonable numbers, legality, and assimilation.

Border enforcement, reliable identification cards, and employer sanctions can help to advance those aims. In contrast, a guest-worker program will only perpetuate the notion of a second-tier of residents, working for wages that most Americans would not—and yet deprived of the full civic rights enjoyed by their employers.

Such helotage would only breed understandable resentment among an underclass, “guest” or not, as well driving down wages in entry-level jobs sought by first-generation citizen workers (many of them Mexican-American).

The Bracero program is often evoked with nostalgia. But my early memories of it here in the San Joaquin Valley were of exploited workers, who did not always wish to go home after harvest, had some portion of their attached pay stolen by the Mexican government, and were contracted out as near chattel to the largest employers with the greatest political connections.

By the same token, deporting some 11 million Mexicans here illegally en masse makes little moral or practical sense. Some are aged and sick; many have lived productive lives that have enhanced the United States for decades, and could easily apply and receive citizenship without going back to Mexico.

A better approach then would be to return any illegal immigrants with criminal records and those who have only recently arrived, while offering a process of citizenship for many millions of the rest. And as part of a quid pro quo, in addition to closing an open border, we could systematically begin to eliminate bilingual documents, state interpreters, ethnic quotas in hiring, and linguistic separatism to encourage assimilation of naturalized Mexicans in the manner accorded to most other arrivals from southeast Asia, India, and Eastern Europe.

I now turn to Rodriquez’s stream of consciousness with a deep sense of regret, given both his earlier reasoned and often brave (or “notorious”) arguments against ethnic tribalism—and his present baffling obsession with skin color and yet more evidence of the astonishing decline of a once insightful writer. Here he has sadly advanced no real argument, but instead offers only a mélange of ethnic vignettes, and, for some reason, ad hominem attacks of the very sort he used to deplore.

First, I share Rodriquez’s worry that migrant workers are sometimes being demonized. But aside from necessary censure against bigots, it is all the more urgent to ensure that Mexican immigrants arrive in the United States legally, and in reasonable numbers that ensure that they can assimilate and find opportunities in education and employment as quickly as possible.

Yet we too often forget that much of the unfortunate animus toward illegal aliens is most often predicated on class considerations, more than race or religion. Americans of the lower middle classes of all races—who do not have nannies or gardeners, who rarely eat out or stay at a hotel, but who do compete for wages in construction and service industries with illegal aliens, and have their children in overcrowded inner-city or rural schools that are struggling with immigrants without English—are far more likely to demand reform than is our elite. The latter appreciates good cheap service while traveling and dining out, or industrious day-laborers for remodeling and landscaping—and, of course, has little worry about rival illegal-alien film producers, professors, writers, lawyers, or doctors undercutting their own salaries or unions.

Pace Rodriguez, we need not ask either a theologian or an economist about how much of Mexico we are willing to take in. We already have a good guess that one out of every ten Mexican citizens currently resides in the United States, most of them under illegal auspices.

This influx is largely due to the cynical policies of American business that wants robust Mexican youth to work cheaply at wages Americans apparently will not. When the worker’s vigor and health are exhausted, the employer expects to find a younger replacement from Mexico—with the added expectation that the government entitlement industry will provide for his former employee’s health and retirement needs.

Then there is the Mexican government that counts on $15 billion in remittances to prop up a near-failed state, without much care how minimum-wage workers abroad survive after sending so much of their wages home. Illegal immigration for Mexico is a safety valve that ensures dissidents migrate rather than agitate. And Mexico also nurses ethnic chauvinism and old grievances, delighted to discover that its expatriate community grows fonder of Mexico the longer and further it is free from it. Rodriquez thinks it is “curious” that “Indians” are coming north from Mexico. Perhaps, but instead of condemning the “cold heart” of America, he should ask why they apparently find “white” or “Anglo” culture more tolerant than the “Spanish” establishment of Mexico that is apparently relieved to see its own mestizos leave.

Yes, September 11 made Samuel Huntington a “prophet” because, unlike the determinist Francis Fukuyama, he warned that the end of the Cold War would not lead inevitably to a global acceptance of consumer capitalism, democracy, and the end of history, but, as in the case of radical Islam, that millions of reactionaries would reject modernity and globalization with a vengeance, sometimes violently so. Rodriquez should try to refute that thesis rather than cheaply lampoon its author.

Rodriquez also offers a laughable caricature of Huntington’s Who Are We? (I have no idea what his “brown” Charles River or “dialectical meetings” is supposed to mean). Huntington’s point was not to erase the toil and hard work of the variously mentioned aggrieved groups from our collective memory. Rather he argued that the assimilation that they—and most others from Europe as well—went through came mostly from a variant of Western culture derived in large part from Protestant England.

Again, as far as Rodriquez’s personal asides, I don’t know whether Samuel Huntington lives in a minaret in Cambridge; but I might hazard a guess that Rodriguez sees far more spires himself from the “restored Victorian” neighborhoods of San Francisco that are about as out of touch with the world of the illegal alien as is Harvard Yard—despite his own use of the throat-clearing “as a Mexican-American” twice in the same paragraph.

Rodriguez also offers the same cartoon of my own work, and he gives that game away with the buzz nouns and meaningless adjectives so often tossed about by the race industry— “white,” “nativist,” “peasants,” etc. He thinks I am “ungenerous’ in being angry when a “kid” damages my property. But most of the illegal alien “kids” that I have seen over the last twenty years are those that I taught and tutored classics to at Cal State Fresno. In fact, I have had not one “kid,” but five adult aliens ram their vehicles into our vineyards and orchards, all fleeing the scene, but leaving behind only their unregistered and uninsured wrecked cars that have done over $50,000 in aggregate damage.

Is it “ungenerous” to worry about having been broadsided by an uninsured and illegal driver who tried to run from the scene of a serious accident, or having our home broken into twice while the five of us were asleep and awoke to intruders? Given the sheer numbers of illegal aliens, the predominance of single, young men in that cohort, and the laxity of the host that both wants and doesn’t want the newcomers, I am surprised crime, vandalism, and neglect of the law are not more prevalent.

Nor is there any need for more lectures from the Bay Area about Steinbeck’s “Okies.” My wife’s family migrated from Oklahoma, as did most of the so-called whites who still live nearby in southwestern Fresno County. That the literary Rodriquez draws on the Grapes of Wrath, and sees only melodrama rather than tragedy, is once again indicative of his lack of any recent first-hand familiarity with either illegal immigrants or “Okies.” And the clash of cultures that arose from the great Dust Bowl migration from the American Southwest was not just a matter of prejudice against the poor and unwashed—although it was surely that. Many of Steinbeck’s romantic Joads also brought with them from the South its racial hostility and fundamentalism that were bound to collide with a very different preexisting multiethnic, half-century-old culture of the Central Valley. I’ll leave it to Rodriquez to ponder whether the Methodists or Lutherans of a Visalia or Kingsburg were any more intolerant that the Holy Rollers of the new Pentecostal congregations of Tulare and Bakersfield that appeared in the 1930s.

More importantly, throughout this essay we suffer through more silly stereotypes that remain just that despite the rhetorical flourishes: Mexicans are “sweet” and love their families, charming in their “lard” and “beer.” Americans are hypocrites, but “nice.” Gringo is an OK word—if voiced by a “Mexican-American.”

Somehow a rant on Iraq makes its way into this blur, with its “screeching skies” and “exploding earth” and “the illegal immigrant becomes bin-Laden’s doppelganger”—whatever that means. Somewhere in all this mess, I think Rodriguez is trying to laugh at “nice” Americans who for some reason have this absolutely odd notion that more stealthy terrorists might try to cross an unguarded 1,500 mile border to trump the mass murder of September 11. Next thing he will snicker at the equally silly recent concerns over packing shampoo in our carry-on luggage at airports.

At this point the only thing missing was the tired La Raza mythologizing about “Gringos” who “stole” Mexican land—and, then, of course it too appeared, sort of at least. But if it is to be a question of theft rather than tragedy, Mexico took the American Southwest from Spain, who lifted it from Indians, and so on back to Neanderthal times—as is the way with most of the history of our aggressive species.

Yet what is odd, from a military and historical view, about the Mexican War and its aftermath, is not that conquering armies the world over regrettably annex land, but that after invading and occupying central Mexico, the United States wanted little of it, acquired only a small sparsely populated part of its northern territory, tried to legalize the transaction, and then had a fierce national debate over the morality of it all. If he wishes to return to the 19th century, Rodriquez could do better by exploring its ironic legacy: recent polls of Mexicans revealed two contradictory sentiments: most expressed a desire to leave and emigrate to the United States, but a near majority also thought that our Southwest does—and should—belong to Mexico. An Orwellian corollary then follows: should El Norte return to Mexico, then many Mexicans would not wish to escape to El Norte?

Catholicism and the notion of suffering, together with asides about Protestantism and Puritanism, permeate Rodriguez’s essay. Left unsaid is that the absence of family planning in a postagrarian age—more so even than questions of income parity—ensures that many immigrant families, arriving with 3-8 children, will never in the first generation achieve a parity of livelihood with American households who rarely have more than three offspring.

While the Catholic Church is critical of government efforts to curtail the number of illegal aliens, it is silent about its own role in this nexus between poverty, “suffering,” and large families. Only six out of ten second-generation Mexican Americans on average graduate from high school in four years; and less than ten percent have a BA degree—the legacy not of racism or America’s “cold heart,” but of millions arriving from Mexico without English, education, and legality.

I don’t believe much of what Rodriquez has written here, and suspect he really doesn’t either—except in one instance: his own revealing admission about the spring demonstrations that “It was the first time I had seen illegal parents, standing fearlessly in public with their children.”

Had Richard Rodriquez left the world of Fillmore Street cafés more often to visit a baseball game in Orange Cove, the emergency room in Selma, or the public park in Parlier, he could have witnessed just such “fearlessness”—which for 30 years has pretty much been about the norm around here.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Mexicans in America by Richard Rodriguez

    In the lead essay to this month’s Cato Unbound, celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez offers a provocative meditation on the place of Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. “I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture,” Rodriguez writes, “But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.” Arguing that the question of Mexican immigration “might better be asked of a theologian, than an economist,” Rogriguez considers the religious and cultural character of Mexicans, and the role of Mexico as a repository of American sin, and American fear.

Response Essays

  • 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.

The Conversation