August 10, 2001


The Ties That Bind — How the Amnesty Debate Is Uniting Latinos

By Ruben Martinez

LOS ANGELES — Hugo Alexander and Marcos Montero stand at the corner of Fletcher Drive and Atwater Avenue beneath the old, peeling neon sign for Ray's Liquor. The intersection is a popular gathering place for day laborers; half a block away is a busy U-Haul outlet. Whenever a work truck rolls by, the men whistle and wave their hands, hoping to join a crew with a construction, painting or landscaping job.

At least on the surface, Alexander and Montero make a curious pair. Montero is from the Merced district in Mexico City, and he speaks a highly urbanized and rapid Spanish. Alexander hails from Zacatecoluca, a city in central El Salvador; his speech has the tones and rhythms of a man from the provinces. Montero likes rock `n' roll, Alexander, cumbia and merengue. Alexander eats pupusas; Montero, tacos. Montero says he crossed illegally into the U.S. because, as a house painter in Mexico, he couldn't envision the slightest social mobility for himself and his family. Alexander says that after civil war, Hurricane Mitch and the devastating earthquakes earlier this year, he had no choice but to try his luck in the north.

On this cool, gray summer morning, Alexander and Montero have yet to secure the day's employment, but they aren't worried about their prospects, even though it's already past ten A.M.

"Sooner or later, we'll be picked up," says Montero, 30, a short and stocky man with eyes hidden behind huge Ray Bans. "There's always somebody that needs us."

One reason Montero and Alexander can get along without the slightest sense of competition or of rivalry due to national origin is that both men have found there are enough jobs to go around. And in the end, the similarity of their circumstances today unites them despite their different backgrounds. Which is why I find some of the ideas floated by the Bush administration as it grasps for a new amnesty (or "regularization" as Bush prefers) so unsettling.

Initially, Bush and his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox spoke of a regularization deal exclusively for Mexican migrants, which would have set Alexander and Montero on opposite sides of a huge divide. Almost immediately, however, Central Americans, Caribbeans and even some South Americans (like the Columbian enclave of New York City), clamored that they are at least as deserving as their Mexican brethren. Mexicans, too, bristled at the notion.

"We're all in the same situation," Montero says, snacking on hard-boiled egg and a Coke. "How can you distinguish between me and my brother here?"

"I'm not waving my country's flag, and my comrade isn't either," chimes in Alexander. "There's no flags here."

Such sentiments have deep historical roots in Latin America. Simon Bolivar, the great Venezuelan independence leader, inspired legions with his vision of a hemisphere united in struggle against colonialism. Tirelessly scouring a vast region of the continent for support, he eventually defeated the forces of the Spanish Crown and founded the Republic of Gran Colombia (a federation of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador). That's not to say, of course, that national boundaries don't matter. Bolivar's dream was ultimately shattered by the factionalism that ensued after independence, but to this day, every child schooled in Latin America is taught the basics about "El Libertador."

There is a contradiction in the Latin soul, a split as ancient as colonialism itself. Existing regional differences were exploited by Spain and other powers in the age-old "divide and conquer" scheme. And to this day, national rivalries play themselves out, sometimes innocuously (during qualifying matches for soccer's World Cup), and sometimes quite viciously (Central Americans en route to the U.S. complain of brutal treatment while passing through in Mexico).

But equally powerful are Bolivar's ideals of commonality-distinct peoples with the same enemy can only win if united. Francisco Morazan attempted to unite the nations of Central America in the mid-19th century; Jose Marti rhapsodized in a similar vein from Cuba at the dawn of the twentieth. Mexican-Central American tensions notwithstanding, the Mexican government actively sponsored revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s, and hosted peace talks that led to a settlement of Salvador's bloody conflict in 1992.

I have roots in both Mexico and Central America. My father grew up In Los Angeles of Mexican parents, and my mother emigrated from her native El Salvador to the U.S. as a young adult. My Mexican grandparents lived in Silver Lake and I was quite close to them growing up—they were my connection to Old Mexico. My mother also sought to retain her ties with her family, and I spent several summers in El Salvador as a kid. Weaned on tacos and pupusas, as it were.

In my family, I found it impossible to root for the Salvadoran or Mexican soccer teams during the World Cup qualifying matches. I grew up with the intuitive knowledge that borders are political lines of convenience-lines that one crosses if history makes it necessary to do so.

Which brings us back to Hugo Alexander and Marcos Montero on the corner of Fletcher and Atwater. Both men vigorously argue in favor of an amnesty inclusive of all Latin Americans like them: people pushed out of their impoverished lands and pulled in by the American labor economy. Mexicans, Central Americans and Caribbeans arrived in the U.S. under different circumstances, but the majority of them share space in the service sector: by and large, the jobs with the worst pay and conditions. Living in legal limbo-as undocumented Mexicans or as Central Americans stuck in "temporary status"—they have little recourse to better those conditions. Just as Mexicans and Central Americans joined together in 1994 to march, by the tens of thousands, against Proposition 187, so today are they united in arguing for an amnesty that recognizes their commonality. It is an economic argument that translates, for migrants, into a moral imperative: if even one group is left out, all are symbolically denied.

Much of the national Latino leadership is lining up against a Mexican-only "regularization." It's at times like these when we realize how much more we have in common than what separates us.

Ruben Martinez' new book, Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, will be published this fall.

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