Excerpt from Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond
By Dr. Alvaro Huerta
Accompanying review by Roberto Haro
Chapter 1 Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
The historical ties of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., specifically the Southwest, distinguishes people of Mexican origin from other immigrant groups, especially those from Europe. While Mexican immigrants continue to be demonized and characterized as “criminals,” “drug dealers,” “rapists,” “illegal aliens” and “invaders” by American leaders and millions of white citizens, they have essentially become “foreigners in their own land.”
In his infamous article, “The Hispanic Threat,” (Foreign Policy, 2009), the late Dr. Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard claimed that Latinas/os in general and individuals of Mexican origin in particular represented an existential threat to the U.S. By evaluating the positive contributions of Latinas/os to this country since the mid-1800s, we can easily dismiss racist labels and false narratives by small-minded American leaders, racist scholars and nativist citizens. Moreover, by being objective and critical, we can learn the true history about the actual invaders. For instance, in progressive history books, like Dr. Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, we learn that white Americans gradually migrated into what is now known as Texas during the 1820s (156).
While the Mexican government allowed for whites to settle in this foreign territory, the authorities did so under the assumption that they adopt Mexican customs, learn Spanish and intermarry with the native population. This originally occurred without too much conflict, which reveals the openness of the Mexican government and its people towards the white foreigners. This is not to imply that all whites arrived legally or with permission from the Mexican government, as Gloria Anzaldúa eloquently documents in her 1987 classic book, Borderland / La Frontera: The New Mestiza.
By 1826, according to Takaki, then-President John Quincy Adams offered the Mexican government $1 million for Texas, where the Mexican government refused (156). Once Mexico outlawed slavery in 1830, however, pro-slavery Americans, along with other white settlers, rebelled and formed The Republic of Texas in 1836. By 1845, it was annexed into the United States. It appears to me that the white settlers or gringos took the Mexicans literally when the hosts generously said, “Mi casa es su casa.”
Once the U.S. government annexed Texas, it didn’t take the government long to pursue additional territory via the U.S. imperialist war against Mexico (1846 to 1848), as documented by Chicana/o historians, such as Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Dr. Deena J. González and Dr. Rudolfo “Rudy” Acuña. Based on Manifest Destiny, this imperialist war represented a bloody and greedy land grab, where, according to Acuña in his classic book, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, this concept represents “…a religious doctrine with roots in Puritan ideas, which continue to influence U.S. thought to this day” (52). After the U.S. forced Mexico to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, by then, Mexico lost half of its territory, according to Anzaldúa (7). Although the Mexicans who decided to reside in the U.S. were protected under the treaty, which included their ancestral lands, the U.S. Congress quickly ratified the treaty.
As a result, the Mexicans in el norte eventually lost their lands through the courts, illegal acts and violent means by the state and white citizens. Writing about the brutal experiences of the disposed Mexicans on this side of the border, Anzaldúa (1987) decries this tragedy: “Con el destierro y el exilo fuimosdesuñados, destroncados, destripados—we were jerked out by our roots, truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed, and separated from our identity and our history. Many, under the threat of Anglo terrorism, abandoned their homes and ranches and went to Mexico” (7-8). This cruel history, unfortunately, is not taught in American schools.
Thus, when we think about Mexican immigration to el norte, we must examine it under this historical context. That is, unlike the millions of European immigrants who travelled across an entire ocean to settle in North America, Mexicans have always occupied this land or called it home until it was stolen from them by military force. Moreover, like in the case of Native Americans and the brutal history of broken treaties by the U.S. government, the Mexicans in el norte lost their basic rights due to the broken Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Given their historical memory, this is one reason why the millions of Mexicans who make their journey to the U.S. (with or without legal status), especially to the Southwest, don’t view themselves as law breakers or so-called “illegals.”
Like the homing pigeon, the Mexican is simply returning to the motherland.
Despite the loss of their ancestral lands, the impact or contributions of Mexicans (immigrants, residents and citizens) to American cities, suburbs, rural communities and agricultural fields during the past 170 years has been positive, overall. Moreover, while Mexicans in el norte don’t receive the credit that they deserve, they’ve contributed greatly (and continue to the present) in many areas of American society and its economy. This includes agriculture, music, art, construction, infrastructure, transportation (e.g., railroads, freeways, roads), medicine, mining, ranching, science, the military, the academy and beyond. Essentially, there’s no doubt that individuals of Mexican origin played a key role (to the present) to help make this country into the richest, most advanced and powerful country in the world.
Despite being defeated militarily during the early and mid-1800s and experiencing institutional racism, Mexicans have migrated to this country—along with those who’ve settled prior to the U.S. imperialist war against Mexico—to work, create jobs, study, serve in the military and raise families, etc. For instance, during the second half of the 1800s, Mexican immigrants and their offspring represented a key labor force in agriculture, railroad construction, mining and other key sectors. However, instead of being rewarded for their labor contributions with adequate financial compensation and upward mobility opportunities, they’ve experienced racism (to the present) in the workforce and beyond. According to Takaki, working on white-owned ranches in Texas, “Mexican laborer[s] found themselves in a caste system — a racially stratified occupational hierarchy” (173).
During the most of the 1800s and 1900s, it was very common to see Mexicans and Chicanas/os (Mexican-Americans) employed as laborers or workers, while whites worked as supervisors or managers. This racial hierarchy in the workforce, along with the unequal educational system, has limited the occupational status of Mexican immigrants and Chicanas/os. For instance, Mexican immigrants were relegated to the bottom of the economic workforce, which included toiling under agricultural programs like the Bracero Program—the U.S.-Mexico guest worker program of the mid-20th century. From 1942 to 1964, more than 4.8 million Mexican immigrants legally migrated to this country, representing “cheap,” exploitable labor for agricultural employers for the benefit of American consumers (Gonzales 175). Many of them also worked to build America’s railroad infrastructure.
Despite being conquered and exploited in the workforce, the Mexican people in el norte have a strong tradition of organizing for social and economic justice. According to Takaki, in 1903, “… hundreds of Mexicans and Japanese farm workers went on strike in Oxnard, California” (174). This is just one example, apart from the case of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Brown Berets of the 1960s and 1970s, where Mexicans and Chicanas/os defended their labor and civil rights through labor strikes, civil disobedience, protests, marches and so on.
Moreover, despite being a racialized minority in this country, Mexicans and Chicanas/os served in the military at higher rates compared to whites. According to Acuña, where he cites Robin Scott, during WWII, while Chicanas/os represented only 2.69 million residents/citizens in the U.S., between 375,000 to 500,000 Chicanos served in the war (243). Despite their contributions and sacrifices, it didn’t stop the U.S. government from implementing “Operation Wetback” in early 1954, where Mexican immigrants and Chicanas/os were deported in mass to Mexico. It’s obvious to me that their military and labor contributions of Chicanas/os, like in the present, weren’t appreciated by the U.S. government.
As a son of Mexican immigrants, this issue is not just an academic exercise for me; it’s also personal. Like millions of her paisanas, while my late mother Carmen toiled in the informal economy as a domestic worker in this country for many decades, privileged whites pursued economic opportunities and leisure activities outside of the household. Similarly, like millions of his paisanos, while my late father Salomon first arrived in this country to pick fruits and vegetables during the Bracero Program, where he was forced to abandon his family and rural community, American families enjoyed the fruits of his labor in their homes and restaurants.
At the end of the day, my late parents never received the adequate financial rewards or benefits of their labor and sacrifice, such as good wages, upward mobility opportunities, educational opportunities and homeownership. In my expert opinion, based on my interdisciplinary scholarship, civic engagement experience and public policy background, it will take many generations to come for millions of Mexicans and Chicanas/os in el norte to one day obtain the elusive American Dream.
Huerta: intellectual town crier and change agent Defending Latina/o Communities: The xenophobic era of Trump and beyond by Alvaro Huerta
Review by Roberto Haro
Alvaro Huerta has crafted an impressive and valuable book that speaks directly and poignantly to the long-lived biases against Latinos in the United States. His collection of carefully selected essays and their key sources proffers a strong testimonial about the prejudices that developed against this community.
The book begins with two significant commentaries about Huerta’s purpose in preparing the book. The essay by Juan Gómez Quiñones is a tightly written erudite account of the formation and existence of negativity toward Latinos that has plagued them in this country. The foreword by José Calderon blends key aspects of the dilemma posed by this prejudicial phenomenon and the thoughtful, and at times, mirthful approach used by Huerta in presenting this theme.
What sets this collage of materials aside from other accounts of the bigotry against Latinos is the way Huerta blends scholarly documentation with poignant anecdotal information. Too often scholars engage in scrupulous documentation to underpin their narrative presentations and prepare sanitized treatises that are better suited for reading by their academic colleagues than use by a much broader readership. The detachment most academic use to prepare their books results in a cold and lifeless chronicle of attitudes and events. Huerta has, instead, injected much of his keen observations and personal experiences to underscore the problems and challenges.
Mexicans were here long before white Americans traveled to the Southwest. After the Mexican American War of 1842 and the resulting treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans were conquered people, forced to adopt different economic, political and social structures enforced by the victors. From 1848 onward, there would be waves of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of the Americas to this country, and especially to the Southwest.
Each new wave would be the result of a “push – pull” dynamic. Enticements from those who needed Latino labor in the US were matched by tragic conditions like famine, revolutions, suppressions and personal danger that forced Latinos from their countries. This duality has enveloped the status of Latinos in America, and erroneously justified abuses, hatred and negative stereotypes. And, as Huerta accentuates in most of his essays, it has marginalized Latinos in this country.
The negative perceptions and biases against Latinos are examined carefully by Huerta in two ways that are commendable. He has done extensive research, most of it well documented, to prepare a series of essays that meticulously focus on the existential phenomenon that projects an undesirable portrait of an abused part of the American society. But at the same time, he has provided an important introspective and personal account and perspective of what Latinos face and endure. Both are used as filters to study and report on the way different structures in American society deal with this oppressed minority. This form of subjugation leads to personal and economic disenfranchisement, and in too many cases, poverty. The schools, the police and the media are examined to reveal their complicity as elements that force an external socialization on Latinos.
As a result, Huerta discusses from a personal vantage point how counter forces in the Latino community develop to challenge and resist abusive assimilation tactics. Yes, gangs and illegal activities arise, but so do positive mores by which Latinos and their families cope with the challenges they face, often from a very hostile larger society. Family life that is strong, healing and supportive is well presented by Huerta as part of his upbringing. Despite the barriers the larger society places in the path of capable Latinos, Huerta through family, friends and mentors, succeeds. That success is critical, and something that needs to be shared with a broad audience.
Part of the marginalization of a minority is a forced type of segregation that result in ghettos. For Latinos, it is the barrios and colonias in which they live, and mainly thrive. The barrios are a refuge, a place where the minority culture exists, nurtures and even protects its members. Huerta gives readers a wonderful trip through these places with his accounts of growing up there and how different elements in the Latino family and culture influence his ambitions, determination, and eventual success. In some of his essays, he presents the harsh life experiences endured by Latinas and Latinos. But he also shares tender moments of self-analysis that surface feelings of rebuff, insecurity, and frustration. Yet, he tells the reader what it is like to know poverty and rejection and still find a path to succeed.
Built into the fabric of the book are the structural problems identified by Huerta that condition and perpetuate the dangers and damages to Latinos. To this day, the xenophobic, mendacious and malicious rantings of an American president contribute to the injustice Latinos face in this country. Such bigotry, if continually vocalized by American leaders, continues to infect the minds, attitudes and behavior of too many people in this country. Huerta is to be admired for raising these unpleasant attitudes that result in prejudicial and even violent behavior toward Latinos and other minorities. But to his credit, he offers different ways to overcome these challenges and find common ground among the different groups in our society. Despite the human rights violations that Huerta mentions, he offers positive and constructive ways to construct an encompassing societal compact that benefits all. And to do this, he offers options and ideas that are welcome and valuable heuristic methods for learning and classroom use.
In his essays, Huerta uses terms that are not just descriptors, but are also definitional and focus on the character and ideology of this minority group. Terms like Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Latinos, Latinx and the politically charged Chicano play an important role in his analysis. He often uses the terms separately, but also finds ways to blend and integrate them to form a compositive of the people about whom he cares and writes. His definitional perspectives add to the richness of the stories he tells and engender a sense of shared experiences that transcend geographical location, and subcultures within the Latinos of America.
Mentors are a critical part of a person’s life, and Huerta identifies a few who made a profound difference in his life. Obviously, José Z. Calderón and Juan Gómez Quiñones come to mind. However, directly and indirectly he calls attention to others, like the brilliant UC Berkeley scholar Ronald Takaki and Dr. Leo Estrada at UCLA, both deceased. Mentors played a critical role in his intellectual and moral development, and helped open his mind to not just exploring, understanding and rationalizing the abuses visited on Latinos, but the conceptualization of portable strategies that can combat these negative biases. And along the way, Huerta has morphed from mentee to mentor. And the proof of that is in the preparation of this valuable and seminal book in which he moves from acolyte participant to the role of intellectual town crier and change agent.
I could go on to explore in more detail some of the essays Alvaro Huerta uses in his book. However, two things auger against that. First, others have already devoted considerable time and effort to describe and explore the various issues in the separate essays. And second, time and space will not allow much further commentary. Suffice to say that Huerta has written a well crafted and researched book that provides a plethora of insights, perspectives and well documented research on the persistent prejudices that challenge Latinos in our country.
Roberto Haro is a retired professor and university senior administrator with career service at major research universities in California, Maryland and New York. Since retiring, he has written thirteen novels, most of which have earned him literary awards for excellence. He lives in Marin County, California.