Cato Unbound on Mexicans in America. This is a shortened version of the lead essay:
Mexicans in America, by Richard Rodriguez, Lead Essay, Cato Unbound: Some years ago, with the publication of my first book, I became notorious in certain American academic quarters for my opposition to bilingual education and my celebration of assimilation—the child’s coming to think of himself as belonging within a society of strangers.
I retain my belief in the necessity of a common American culture. But I am lately appalled by voices raised in this country against Mexican migrant workers.
Americans have tended to abrogate to economists the question of the costs and the benefits of illegal immigration. But, surely, beyond how much Betsy Ross is willing to pay for a head of lettuce, there is the question of morality, there is the question of Mexico. ...
Mexico represents a special annoyance to the United States because ... Mexico is forthright in reminding America of the corruption of our past. In the 19th century, Americans were illegal immigrants into Mexican territory. The United States stole the Southwest from Mexico..., a desire we unrolled with great mumbo-jumbo and called Manifest Destiny. Everything Americans want to say about illegal immigrants today, history can also say about us. ...
Mexican Americans have the bad but telling habit of naming gringos “Anglos.” So-called Anglos name Mexican Americans “Hispanics.” Hispanic. In all the video footage I have seen of people crossing illegally from Mexico, ... the faces look more Indian than Spanish. Most of the illegal immigrants from Mexico may be mestizo, racially, but Indian features predominate. And isn’t that curious? The Indians are illegally coming into the United States. Indians will always wander in the Americas and they should. ...
The majority opinion in America is that Mexicans illegally in the United States should not be given citizenship. Mexicans broke the law, Americans say, playing the victim. ...
A mood of Protestant Reformation is sweeping the country. The fear of illegal immigrants along America’s southern border has increased proportionally as America’s support for the war in Iraq has waned. Americans feel a need to cleanse the country of illegality. September 11th makes that dream of cleansing urgent. We went to war in Iraq to play the actor in history rather than the victim. The wounded nation wanted a war movie with screeching skies and exploding earth and apocalyptic diction. But with the passage of years, after the daily news of car bombings, IED’s, the growing tally of war dead and maimed, and with images of hateful, ungrateful brown mobs protesting America’s presence in their cinderblock neighborhoods, Americans have grown skeptical of our ability to will a democracy onto a landscape we do not understand.
So we resort to our own desert. The anger we lately tapped to hunt the Arab terrorist, we now direct toward the migrant worker. ... In order to turn our familiar use of the Mexican peasant into a fear of the Mexican peasant we have had to internationalize him. The migrant has illegally crossed an international border, we say.
In the end, ... this neurotic blurring of the peasant-worker with the terrorist could have the effect of creating exactly what America says it fears. If we are unable to distinguish the terrorist from the migrant worker, Americans will end up isolating illegal immigrants and their children from the mainstream, encouraging the adults to see themselves as mired in hopeless illegality, and their children to see themselves as off-spring of the undocumented, thus also criminal. And we will have Arabian Nights on a larger scale than those we witnessed last summer in Paris.
We do not acknowledge the trespasser as someone who is seeking to cross an economic border. America spends precious little of its affinity for biblical language and allusion on the plight of the illegal laborer. ... The Mexican peasant has the advantage, if you will allow me to call it that, of coming to America from a Catholic culture that honors suffering; that sees suffering as holy, and poverty as blessed, and therefore accords the poor a position (exactly opposite to the middle-class ethos of American Puritanism) over the middle class.
My own eyes tell me that Mexicans are not dishonored by their poverty... Since America will not honor the poverty of the Mexican worker in theological terms, we should at least be clear that the Mexican is such a good worker because of the strength of the Mexican family. Mexicans work for each other; that is their reason for working.
On the other hand, I have heard Mexican astonishment at the kindness of strangers in America. The stranger gave me some money. The stranger gave me a ride in his truck. The stranger gave me some water. Whereas in Mexico, all such generosity takes place within the family, in America the generosity among strangers is ... common ..., and this amazes the Mexican.
America is a country where children are raised to leave home, and each generation is expected to seek its own way. The great pronoun of the United States is the Protestant pronoun—the “I”. America teaches its children independence and the bravery of the solitary path. The burden of life in America is loneliness. ...
The children of Mexican migrant workers, who are two or even three generations into this country, are faced with competing pronouns, and struggle to reconcile them. On the one hand, the Mexican American is expected to live within a family whose emotional architecture draws the child away from the window. On the other hand, America presents the child with an open door. As long as you understand this grammatical dilemma for the child struggling between the “we” and the “I”, any statistic you want—on Mexican American gangs, early marriage rates, suicide attempts, black-brown tensions, high school drop out rates, military heroism—becomes coherent.
I am a generation removed from the Mexican working class. My parents, who were legally here in the United States, were never called, within hearing of their children, a disgraceful burden to America; were never called an affront to their adopted country; were never called a drag on the morale on the United States of America.
I think no other children of poverty hear—on poisonous talk radio, even from the floor of the Congress—what the children of parents illegally in the United States are forced to hear. The contribution of illegal lives is never counted—never—as praise or admiration or courage or virtue of any kind. It is as though America, having benefited from illegal labor, pretends that the transaction was one of middle-class benevolence. Mexicans should be thankful for a month of cheerless eight-hour shifts... The odd thing is that they are thankful!
As I watched the proliferation of mass demonstrations across the country last spring, I noticed nuns and priests; lots of comic sombreros. I saw Mexican flags—a typical, humorous Mexican thing to do, to wrap yourself in the flag of Mexico, in order to insist on your desire to remain in the United States. I noticed families principally, parents and their children.
It was the first time I had seen the children of illegality demanding that the United States show respect for their parents. It was the first time I had seen illegal parents, standing fearlessly in public with their children. I tell you it was a momentous time in the history of the Americas. I hope you saw it.
I don't think September 11th combined with a Protestant Reformation is behind the current call for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, i.e. that "A mood of Protestant Reformation is sweeping the country. The fear of illegal immigrants ... has increased proportionally as America’s support for the war in Iraq has waned. Americans feel a need to cleanse the country of illegality. September 11th makes that dream of cleansing urgent." It's due to the increased economic insecurity workers feel and the fear, real or politically driven, that illegal immigration makes economic conditions even worse.