By Sandip Roy
New America Media
Editor’s Note: As protests against an iron-fisted immigration law spread across the country Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Tucson, Atlanta it seemed like America was waking up to the profound truth that the census had already noted: the new America was already here. Sandip Roy asks essayist and commentator Richard Rodriguez to step back from the number-crunching of polls and rhetorical jabs of politics to examine the larger philosophical questions behind the immigration debate. Roy is host of “UpFront,” New America Media’s radio program on KALW-91.7 in San Francisco. Rodriguez is author of, most recently, “Brown: The Last Discover of America” (Viking, 2002).
Q: There were 500,000 people in Los Angeles, 30,000 in Phoenix. What did you make of it?
A: It seemed as if the Trojan horse had already entered the city and the gates are closed behind it. This argument about illegal immigration seems to be 20 to 30 years too late. Clearly what we were seeing in these great demonstrations was a number of people who are illegally here. But I would guess we were seeing larger numbers of people who are the children or relatives of people who are illegally here.
The illegal is no longer in this tentative position of merely being sent back home. In many ways, the illegal now has a home here in the United States and is connected to a network of family lives. I think it was to honor their parents that many of those young people left school early in Dallas and Los Angeles and elsewhere. It was to say to the United States that their parents have a value, at a time when the United States is saying most loudly that the illegal immigrant is only taking, only using America and giving nothing back.
Q: But many of them marched with the Mexican flag did that reinforce the fear that they are really inside Troy now, not just at the gates?
A: The interesting thing about Mexicans and Americans is that they are exactly alike in their difference. Americans are Protestant people. We are very literal. We see people carrying a foreign flag and are upset at what looks to us like an unpatriotic gesture. Mexicans are people of metaphor and symbols. When they carry a Mexican flag, it’s a testimony to memory that they are carrying.
But notice what they were doing. They were carrying a Mexican flag in a protest about their insistence on belonging to America. They are, many of them, people who have come under great risk, some risking death to come to the United States. They are not people who want to go back to Mexico. They are not people who are even saying Mexico is the greatest country. But they have in some sense brought Mexico with them.
The irony in this debate is, because Americans are so provincial, we don’t even notice what illegal immigration has done to Mexico. Illegal immigration is really evidence of the death of Mexico. I saw a Pew poll recently that said some 46-47 percent of Mexicans would prefer to live in the United States. When you see a number like that, that half the country would like to live somewhere else, you begin to realize what the dream of a job in El Norte has done is essentially exhaust Mexico of its energy to entertain and to enliven its own children.
Q: What do you think about the numbers, that far more people showed up for these protests than the anti-Iraq war protests?
A: For years and years people have wondered about this Hispanic beast sleeping, docile, not voting, not civic in the way smaller ethnic groups have been. It might be the irony of this debate in recent weeks that Lou Dobbs and Pat Buchanan have stirred the animal and given energy to a population that heretofore has not been confident of its public voice.
If you look at the demonstrations you would have seen less sobriety than a comic assurance. There were oversized Mexican sombreros, much like you might buy at a cheap tourist stand at some Mexican seaside resort. There were pious nuns with crucifixes. There were lots of kids who were laughing and singing. There was a sense of celebration. It’s as if whatever the energy of these demonstrations, it wasn’t coming at America as a sour voice, but rather with some confidence and irreverence.
Q: Is this voice comparable for immigrants to the civil rights movements in the 1960s for African Americans?
A: I don’t know yet. Part of the problem with illegal immigrants, something those of us who are sympathetic to illegal immigrants stumble over, is that people who pay the highest price are always working class Americans. Not the middle class Americans who are protesting so loudly now and want to send the 12 million people back. But the white, black and brown people who have found themselves under-priced in the labor market.
I think if we use terms like “civil rights movement” we must be careful to acknowledge that this is not a simple movement of the underdog against the powerful. In some sense this is a struggle of the underdog against the underdog. What we are watching in these great cities is a displacement of a native poor by an immigrant poor. And that’s a serious problem.
In Los Angeles, the great African-American neighborhoods Watts, Compton, South Central these have become in recent years Spanish-speaking Latino communities. No one is asking right now, certainly among the Latinos, where have the African-Americans gone? What is the price of this displacement, in the long term? Those questions, because they haven’t been asked, are still dangerous.
Q: What do you think about the fact that this movement seems to have no identifiable Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X? The people on the streets seem equally disillusioned with the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Is it leaderless?
A: It may be for the time being. There will be a rush obviously by political hacks and opportunists to claim some kind of leadership role. Mexican-Americans happily do not have a Jesse Jackson, but I am sure there is someone in the wings who is preparing for that role...
By and large what we have seen is a refusal of the official left or the right to speak well of illegal immigrants. I think what that has done is allowed American nativism and I use that word advisedly allowed American nativism to participate in a drama that we have seen along the border a century ago, as early as the 1920s and ’30s. When Americans had finished with the labor they wanted from the Mexicans, we decided to send them back. Of course 10 years later during World War II we wanted that labor again, because American men had gone to the European and Asian theater. We go through these cycles of wanting the Mex-ican’s labor and not wanting the Mexican. Of using his or her energy and then pretending we never wanted it in the first place.
America, as I say, is a Protestant country. Our greatest vice, I would argue, is hypocrisy. Mexico is a Catholic country. Its great vice is cynicism. Mexicans look at the United States and realize that Americans are saying one thing, that they are against illegal immigration, and doing another, they will hire you if you can get across the line. Mexicans take advantage of that disparity. Americans pretend they had nothing to do with that transaction at all. We didn’t want them here in the first place. It all had something to do with agro-business.
We persist in these patterns... If anything needs to be said in this relationship it is that both partners are illegal and both partners have something to gain from this relationship.
Q: What do you think of this term “illegal alien” vs. “undocumented immigrant”?
A: I find neither of them very interesting. These are horrible bureaucratic terms to describe human lives. I think what the Catholic Church has done in the last few days Archbishop Mahoney in Los Angeles primarily, but the Catholic hierarchy in general, partly as a penance for the sexual crimes of the last several decades having been exposed I think the Catholic church has found its voice in defending the poor and seeing these people as people who are victimized by hunger, maltreatment, low wages.
At a point when the Republican Party had decided to go to church and made itself pious with its anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion stance and had satisfied the holy mullahs of Colorado Springs, suddenly the Protestant is silent. Suddenly the Catholics, who have this long tradition of honoring poverty, of seeing poverty as this blessed state unlike the Puritan who saw it as a state to be pitied and the middle class, that is, those who are rewarded materially, as being God-blessed suddenly that Catholic church has found its voice and taken from the Republican Party that moralism that has sustained it for the last six or seven years.
Q: Do you think the immigrant fight has finally become a moral one, as opposed to one about who picks your lettuce?
A: It may well be... The real crime I think the illegal immigrant commits in American eyes is that he is poor and he is bringing the poverty of the Third World with him. And it is deeply upsetting. We see it crowding into emergency rooms on Saturday night. We see it as illiterate in school. We also see it as an opportunity. We see it as eager, we see it as uncomplaining. We see it as a working class without attitude, something which we haven’t seen for awhile. We see it as energetic.
In my neighborhood the kids from Central America and Mexico wait at the doors of these little cafes and restaurants where they are hired before they open. They are like cats waiting for the doors to open. I think to myself, they are reminding us of the stature of the poor, that these people have dignity in their poverty. I think Americans have not wanted to see them in that way, which is one of the reasons I think we have stressed their foreignness, that they are Mexican or Honduran or Salvadorean rather than the fact that they are poor.