Perhaps the flare-up of the immigration issue started out more legitimately. Certainly there are serious problems with waves of hundreds of thousands of people entering any country illegally. But like the head of a monstrous snake coming out of a thorny bush, the issue has grown its own nasty viper. Immigration has become the new magnet of American racism.
It’s time to recognize this evil trend, and confront it.
From the oh-so-patriotic “Minutemen,” with their potential overlap to vigilante violence, to the actual rise in incidents of race crime against dark-skinned Mexican and other Hispanics, the evidence is that a climate of disdain and potential race and/or ethnic hatred is being generated in North America. This is very evident in the type of language and self-definition put up by not-so-unconsciously race-based pundits and politicians.
The issues generated by the inevitable trend to northern migration among people from Mesoamerica and South America are complicated. As usual, the North American mass media is loath to dig too deeply into its roots. Images of Mexican Indians jumping fences and crouch-running across open desert fields permeate the senses while the public is bombarded with way too many ill-informed and ill-conceived reports of major “threats,” all designed to keep viewers and readers titillated. Ignorant ire seems to dominate as a result. In this age of super-vigilance, the issue of Mexican Indians coming north in waves of humanity whose bottom line or social safety net has been ripped out is ripe for alarmist warnings by pundits and politicians alike, too many of whom like to charge Mexican and other Latin American migrants with causing all kinds of malignancy to America’s economy, culture and social character.
Legitimate debate points include the inherent right of countries to secure their borders; reading the actual impacts of a million new Latin American immigrants per year for the next 20 years on various job sectors, on costs of additional social services, on crime rates and criminal justice systems, very specifically on border communities; and considering what would constitute a humane, fair and sound long-term solution to the situation of the many undocumented migrants already in-country. When these types of questions are thought about rationally and fairly, progress can be made toward resolutions.
Tragically, this is not the trend of the national discourse. Instead, the knives are flying. In the national discourse, the migration north is equated with the threat of terrorist violence, with crime, with all manner of potential diseases and, worst of all, with the threatened disintegration of the national culture. Thus, the proponents of the English-only movement, who perceive the English language to be under assault by, primarily, Spanish, but by extension, all other languages – Native and non-Native – spoken by families in neighborhoods across the United States. In an era when most of the world has already accepted English as the lingua franca of business and science, and at a time when all immigrants to the United States clearly understand the importance of speaking English even though it is difficult for many adults, the rising wave of anti-Spanish language hysteria is indeed troubling.
Racism within the immigration issue is primarily directed at Latin American migrants coming north in search of economic opportunity. The shorthand language used has to do with the sense by Anglo-Americans that the country is changing as so-called Hispanics or Latinos make up an ever-larger proportion of the minority population which, combined with blacks and Asian-Americans, now threatens to become established as the “new majority” and make the Euro-American population essentially the minority. Thus one can hear the likes of pundit and erstwhile presidential contender Pat Buchanan bemoan the fact that “we are losing our country,” shorthand in this case being that crucial “we” and all that such possessiveness implies.
Xenophobia directed at Mexicans has a long history in America. Anglo-America, after all, warred first with Spain and, later, Mexico for a century over more than a third of present-day U.S. territory. Stereotype and racial hatred, ethnic insults (Mexicans as a “mongrel race,” etc.) – apparent requirements of war – layered into the social consciousness of Anglo-Americans.
Salient points of this history not told by the conqueror were articulated in a recent New York Times essay by Tony Horwitz. To be faulted for too brazenly bypassing the indigenous perspective, Horwitz recounts accurately that North America’s first European explorers and settlers were not English-speaking, but were from Spain. Horwitz: “Four of the sample questions on our naturalization test ask about Pilgrims. Nothing in the sample exam suggests that prospective citizens need know anything that occurred on this continent before the Mayflower landed in 1620.”
So who led the first confirmed European landing on North America? Horwitz: “A Spaniard, Juan Ponce de Leon, who landed in 1513,” more than a century before the Pilgrims, “at a lush shore he christened La Florida.” Horwitz reminds us that “the Spanish became the first Europeans to reach the Appalachians, the Mississippi, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains. Spanish ships sailed along the East Coast, penetrating to present-day Bangor, Me., and up the Pacific Coast as far as Oregon.”
There is much history – centuries old and some quite recent – that does not enter the national discourse. Fast-forward to 2006, 12 years after NAFTA. It was the North American Free Trade Agreement, memory recalls, which ushered in the Zapatista Army of Indian peoples in 1994. The Zapatistas challenged even the federal army of Mexico militarily, while pointing out that loss of lands was displacing Indian peasants, who were migrating north in droves.
What’s the connection? Since the advent of the lopsided, so-called free trade agreement, where U.S. corn and bean producers get to keep their government subsidies while poor and modest Mexican Indian farmers lose theirs, the bottom has fallen out of the regional and local farming villages. While these Indian villages have always experienced poverty, most have been self-sufficient, at least in producing and providing and sustaining from the basic Indian foods of corn, beans and other produce, chicken and pigs, the occasional cattle. That’s the traditional Indian homestead for most of southern Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere among agricultural communities in Mesoamerica and South America. This is the stalwart bastion of the mostly self-sufficient safety net upon which the people have depended for millennia. Indian people, real Mexican Indians – Maya, Zapoteca and other indigenous peoples, with distinct languages and varieties of ethnicity and oral tradition – have been severely displaced and dislocated over the past decade. U.S. trade policy has a whole lot to do with it.
These are the bulk of the millions of new migrants inexorably making their way north. These are the Indian refugees displaced from their lands by the destruction of the old ejido systems, the privatization of water and lands, and the demolishment of a national economy that, up to 10 years ago, could make sense of the ancient Indian agricultural and gastronomic complex of the corn tortilla and the bean, grown and consumed locally and regionally. This is the dislocation of replacing this kind of agriculture – as foundation and safety net of rural peoples – with export-oriented agri-business, such as is more possible in the north of Mexico where, generally, the mestizo and Spanish identity have rolled over most of the Indian consciousness of land self-sufficiency.
The climate of fear and loathing in the United States against this mass of dislocated humanity – a direct result of one-sided trade deals that dismiss the needs of whole regions – is presently fueled nightly most prominently by CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Dobbs’ program is regularly preoccupied with the troublesome illegality of the northward migration and its growing demographic. Dobbs’ reporting is mostly accurate, but his tone and point of view heighten the potential for virulence. With violence against Mexicans and other Hispanics on the rise in the United States, it behooves commentators of Dobbs’ caliber to provide the fullest possible understanding of the forces at work that drive so many Mexican Indian people to migrate at this time in history.
Dobbs reports on opinion and impacts in the United States but has yet to wonder on the causes of this constant northbound stream of people, how it originates in the indigenous southern region of Mexico and into Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. And, most importantly, why? Why are these American indigenous people – traditionally attached to their places of origin – so driven these days to pick up and trek north in larger and larger numbers, consistently facing violence, starvation, dehydration and death? What are the conditions they are leaving behind? Who caused those conditions that callously condemn whole peoples to severe economic misery?
We say a better understanding of this complex issue is required before we allow racists to pit good people against good people, as if different mother tongues must necessarily be a source of insult and injury.
This editorial, by Jose Barreiro, originally appeared in Indian Country Today on July 19, 2006 [Vol. 26, Iss. 6]. It received a 2007 Unity Award in Media in the Editorial Writing in the Minority Audience division. The awards are given annually by Lincoln University. The former senior editor of ICT, Barreiro is now director of the Office of Latin America at the National Museum of the American Indian.