Behind the immigration issue are millions of real, breathing Mexicans, Cubans and Dominicans.
I’m what people call a Chicano—½ white, ½ brown. Though when it comes to actually being Mexican, I hardly qualify. I know how to pronounce my “l’s” when ordering a “sopapilla,” and I can cook you authentic refried beans, (do you have 3 hours and a brick of lard?). Beyond that though, I’m as white a Mexican as you’ll find.
I can’t speak a lick of Spanish, I’ve never been to Mexico and I’m on a road trip to find myself. Mexicans don’t go on road trips to find themselves, like black guys don’t drink 7-Up or self-respecting country folks don’t drive Hondas. Am I right?
Well, yes, generally speaking. But there’s something tragic about holding assumptions and being generally accurate when it comes to people, culture and race. While it yields mental efficencies that we use to save time in making sense of an increasingly diverse society, it bleeds us of empathy, compassion and opportunity to marvel at the true richness, depth and color of the world we all share.
To that point, I worry about the negative generalizations and rhetoric cast upon Mexicans as a result of America’s polarizing grapple over the immigration issue.
Determining illegals’ fates as citizens has wired too many amongst us to think of Mexicans as more of an issue, an outside culture, than as people to accept as neighbors with families and human qualities like our own. I see it surfacing in many corners of our collective social culture.
In the Southwest, where I find myself on my road trip, it’s noticeably popular to intensely debate the issue of America’s border with “Meheeco.” In doing so, a million and one Juan’s, Guillermo’s and Sophia’s are reduced to a condensed can of cultural soup whose identity is tied around a singular theme. I see that sentiment take shape in front of my eyes as I watch old-timers driving their super-sized pick-ups through the once white, now brown side of town. I read their grumpy dispositions behind their drawn tinted windows with their climate control blasting to shield themselves from the discomfort of the heat and an unwanted reality outside. I read their bumper stickers that aim to suggest this land is my land, not your land. I look around at what they see, with so many short brown folks hitching rides on the backs of bicycles and manning food trucks pushing tamales and tacos, it must look like a 3rd world country!
The topic hovers around here like a lone dark cloud in the desert sky seemingly always in the way of the light of the sun.
I’ve been stretching out in dusty, dry motel rooms, tuning into the local news and the circus of pundit debates. I watch carefully as news anchors and politicians wear raised eyebrows while delivering carefully measured words to suggest a healthy concern over the topic of immigration. All the while, pictures on the TV work to curate our imaginations. The tube broadcasts sensationalized images of short, dark Mexicans hanging out under trees waiting to be invited into the bed of a contractor’s pickup truck for a day’s work. It shows disturbing images of young kid’s bodies slain in the American desert with hands still clutching an almost smuggled duffel bag of pot.
I cringe at how these conductors of American sentiment filter for depth to whip up generalized sandwiches for a time-starved, politically motivated audience. The fallout of what we see on TV and the Internet is that it comprises our emotional and social contexts from which we draw our perceptions of reality.
Instead of equals, too many of us see them only as criminals, or as people fit for our housework, or as laborers working the fields.
Let me state this, I realize most of us are not bigots and pushers of generalizations and racist sentiment, especially with regard to younger generations who are growing up, going to school with and working alongside Hispanics. But, is it a stretch to qualify these notions of social separation when most us can think of someone we know who would think of Mexicans as second-class citizens, as border-jumpers, wetbacks, spics, tomato-pickers and beaners?
Bring up “Mexicans” to 10 strangers and let me know how many of your conversations touch on personal experiences that speak to positive human exchanges, versus those that spell out social implications and even worse, derogatory remarks. Then try to tell me it’s not a pervasive, culturally toxic issue.
Most of us know people who’ll grumble and justify why immigration should be strictly regulated or stopped altogether. They’ll rattle off its consequences from driving down housing values to hiking up taxes for legal tax-paying citizens. They’ll point to how it’s poaching American jobs to making it a plain pain in the neck to order a gosh-darn cheeseburger in English at McDonald’s.
I’m here to ask these people to consider this: Even if we agree, or disagree on the points that are popular to contend, our association of an entire race to social and political consequences pollutes our ability to see these people we might meet at ground level as individuals.
The more we agree and disagree over the issues surrounding immigration, the more we perpetuate the dehumanization of a people caught in the crosshairs of the largest race critique in this country since the Civil Rights Movement. Behind the immigration issue are millions of real, breathing Mexicans, Cubans and Dominicans that we share time and space with. They laugh, they cry, they fear for the future, they play jokes on their friends, they listen to John Cougar Mellencamp.
Debating immigration aside, what would happen if we also made the effort to put down the paper, turn off the TV and move beyond our comfort zones to form our own opinions about people? What would happen if we challenged ourselves to getting to know a Mexican beyond asking them to fetch us a round of margies and guacamole at our local Mexican restaurant? What would happen if that grumpy old man in the pickup truck got out and bought an avocado from a street vendor and asked what he might make with it?
We all have to live together in a reality that might be different from what is ideal. The human capacity for social harmony is not lost through differences in backgrounds, realities or even language. We all have parallels we can choose to focus on and be moved by. Wouldn’t the common burdens we’ve all faced—feeling judged, isolated or miscast as part of a larger group, be a good place to start?
Is it too idealistic to think we might all strive to be open to understanding each other and uncovering the depth that lies within each person’s individual story?
It may change someone’s world to share a coffee with my very Mexican grandfather, who immigrated here legally and with one income, built a house to raise nine kids in, paid taxes and supported the church. Those kids and their own kids went on to fight in wars, graduate college, start businesses and travel the world. I don’t think it would be a stretch to imagine an exchange of life stories with my grandfather might yield a more complete and compassionate outlook on immigration, if not a more fascinating and rich lens in which to the view the world through.
These are the very human exchanges we need that will serve as a foundation to work through our differences and meet the world we live in with peace, acceptance and happiness.
I’ll conclude by sharing an excerpt that I hope will supplement the limiting perspective and context we take away from the news and others’ opinions. Victor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor of Nazi Germany, and author of the immensely successful and moving Man’s Search For Meaning wrote of judgement:
“It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those that as a whole it would be easy to condemn….I remember how one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human “something” which this man also gave to me—the word and the look which accompanied the gift.
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the “race” of the decent man, and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race.”
I cannot stomach writing about myself and my hardly relevant accolades in third person. If you must know anything about me, I write because life moves me to.
Editor: Sara McKeown