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The Latinoization of the U.S. and "Our" National Culture
In the spring of 2006, the U.S. experienced a series of unprecedented immigrant rights marches involving hundreds of thousands of people across the country as they sought to shift the rising tide of anti-immigrant discourse in the media and among the public at large. In recent years, anti-immigrant sentiments, particularly those aimed at undocumented workers and families, have given rise to hundreds of local ordinances prohibiting access to housing, education, and jobs. Amid this climate, efforts to reform outdated immigration policies stalled at the federal level as the country became polarized by competing perspectives on the benefits and liabilities of immigrant workers to the U.S. economy and culture.
That fall, I began developing plans for a year-long research sabbatical. Like many Chicana/o scholars, I want my research to be relevant to events affecting our community. Having moved to Minnesota in the summer of 2004, as one of only a handful of Chicana/o scholars on campus, I found myself constantly having to speak about migration and immigration to my students and the greater Minnesota community, which was experiencing a rapid influx of Latino immigrants. Though I came of age politically as an undergraduate student in Houston during the 1986 immigration reform era, living in Minnesota, one of the nation's exemplars of the new geography of Latino immigration, was eye-opening. My position at the university provided me with a unique opportunity to be a resource of information and facilitator of people's understanding of this "emerging" population. As I forged alliances and friendships with new immigrants and engaged with a broader public concerned about the impact of immigration on the state's well-being, I gained new insight and appreciation for the complexities and harsh realities that influenced immigrants' decisions to leave home and risk life in el norte. I also witnessed firsthand what it is like to be considered a problem, an unwelcome presence, even though workers and industries that depend on immigrant labor thrive in a mutually beneficial relationship. Further, despite the pervasive media portrayal of a strong anti-immigrant movement and the intensification of rhetoric by politicians, I have seen how immigrant families often forge strong intercultural community relationships at work and in their personal lives. As an educator I have been stunned to learn how little many Minnesotans know about Latin American and Latinos' long history in their own backyard, despite the fact that a Chicano/Latino presence in the urban and rural communities of Minnesota is a century-long phenomenon, not something new at all. In fact, this dynamic environment, the coexistence of older and newer Mexican and Latino communities, had been one of the intriguing factors that led to my move from San Antonio to the Twin Cities.
Determined to conceptualize a project on immigration and the short- and long-term impact of the emergence of Latinos as the nation's largest ethnic minority, I was obliged to reckon with the role the media and its pundits play in shaping public perception of Latinos in the national imaginary. As an avid consumer of media, I often feel inundated by the negative coverage of Latinos and crime, our portrayal as "illegals," as interlopers, as a cultural and economic threat to be regulated and micromanaged by laws writ large and small. All of these concerns strike many Latinos as absurd given that our existence in the Americas, either as indigenous people or settlers, predates the existence of the U.S., even as we also share status with most Americans as multigenerational immigrants. For better or worse, we embody the history of the Americas, including the U.S., which arrogantly proclaims itself America in a bold act of effacement of its intercontinental neighbors. The conflicts, conquests, commingling, and contradictions that comprise this identity form the core of our historical experience as transnational migrants. Moreover, what is lost on so many people is that the upsurge in immigration across the southern border since the 1960s, in fact throughout the twentieth century, is a direct result of U.S. policies that have actively recruited immigrant workers into the labor force and intervened repeatedly in the economic and political self-determination of Latin American countries—policies and practices that continue to this day.
Wanting to get beyond the mostly superficial accounts of media coverage on conflict among newcomers and "citizens," I reached the conclusion that the best way to really explore this problem was to travel across the country and see firsthand the impact of new (im)migrations, to speak firsthand with folks within and outside the Latino community about what their presence here means, and to listen and learn from their experiences as a means of broadening and deepening my perspective. My intention was to let the experience of others inform my own experience as a Chicano in the U.S.
With a few important exceptions, the vast majority of the interviews and oral histories that constitute this book were collected as I traveled approximately 8,500 miles through thirty states around the perimeter of the country on a bicycle from July 1 to December 19, 2007. I departed from Santa Cruz, California, following a route that took me clockwise around the country and back to my final destination in Oakland, California. While my means of travel was nontraditional for scholarly research, it ensured that I would go off the beaten path to meet people in small towns whom I would not have met if I had traveled by other means. It had this and many other benefits, including the acquisition of new insights on the complexity of the social landscape and a renewed respect for the natural environment that immigrants traverse and toil within. My trip was characterized by hundreds of chance meetings and introductions by friends via phone or e-mail to immigrant rights advocates in various regions of the country. I conducted more than seventy-five formal interviews and held countless less formal conversations with people about Latino demographic changes, the new geography of Latino immigration, and the social, cultural, and political challenges associated with both.
Immigration and its consequences, the ensuing friction, fears, and fights, are not to be escaped. This is particularly true in a state like Minnesota whose former governor eagerly embraced the Republican National Party's directive to exploit this as a wedge issue, to make political gain by being distinctive in promoting policies and practices that made easy targets of economically, socially, and politically vulnerable newcomers, despite the fact that across the country they buttress state economies and have renewed devastated rural and urban communities through their labor, entrepreneurship, civic participation, and community-building efforts. How cheap and easy and sad that political power can be used to fracture communities and individual lives in the name of patriotism, homeland security, or political ambition.
But this is not the first time this has happened. The U.S. is a country beset by historical amnesia, the systematic inability to learn painful lessons from our past that might help us unlearn destructive behaviors.
Organization of This Book
In A Journey Across Our America, a companion book to Conversations Across Our America, I documented the five and a half months I spent on the road and share my experiences and perspective alongside those whom I encountered along the way, in stores, in cafés, and as they extended a helping hand to me when my very survival depended on it. The book represented a journey across the land in a particular time and place—the interactive and mutually informing dynamics of the social, political, and natural climate that made up the summer and fall of 2007. In contrast, Voices is intended to foreground the words and experiences of those people I met who took time to have an extended conversation with me. Due to space limitations, included here are portions of thirty-three conversations involving forty-two people of various Latino nationalities, in diverse regions of the country and both urban and rural locales, in diverse professional and nonprofessional occupations, as well as activists, artists, students, and retirees.
I should note that even as I considered the criteria above to determine which interviews I would be able to include and which it would be necessary to exclude, I realized that among the final slate of interviewees were many activists working to effect positive social change around immigration reform and community empowerment. As activists, this is a group of people who may or may not have access to having their voice heard in public discourse but who are nevertheless experienced in articulating the values and beliefs that motivate their work. I recognize that this may have placed them at an advantage for being included here, as they are perhaps more cogent and practiced in expressing their thoughts on the issues we discussed. Thus I was obliged to evaluate the limited extent to which I was giving prominence to the voices of "everyday people," that is, people whose lives are directly affected by local and national contingencies but whose lives are not marked by immersion in political discourse. As I pondered the implications of this, I considered two things. First, excerpts of numerous conversations I had with others who were not selected for inclusion here are given voice in A Journey Across Our America. Second, though the majority of folks whose interviews are included here are activists, their involvement is often a consequence of a process of conscientization that has led them to become agents of change. In other words, with perhaps one or two exceptions, these are people who are not intergenerational activists. They were driven by their everyday life circumstances and experiences—as workers, immigrants, children of immigrants, and descendants of Mexican settlers who arrived before the establishment of the U.S., and students—across generations and geography to acquire the needed knowledge base and the organizing and speaking skills to be effective activists and advocates. In this way, they are quintessential practitioners of cultural citizenship who seek to advance community well-being by advocating for social and institutional reforms through formal and informal means. And in this way, their politics situates them within the historical trajectory of the Latino civil rights movement.
The interviews are organized in seven chapters each of which covers a primary theme that emerged from my conversations. Each chapter is preceded by background information on the issue being addressed, and each interview segment provides background information on the interviewee. It is important to note, however, that I have chosen to preserve the integrity and complexity of my conversations with each speaker by not reducing their contribution only to what they have to say about the prevailing theme. The insights they share are dynamic and enriched by the complexity of the issue as a whole—both diachonrically and synchronically—even when, at times, these contradict one another.
What follows next is an overview of my "process" for identifying interviewees, how I structured our conversation, and my method for determining what to include in this collection and how I approached editing the massive amount of raw data I collected during my trip. Preceding each interview is a brief description of how I was introduced to or met the interviewee. Though I began the trip without scheduled interviews, I was able to make numerous initial contacts with potential interviewees through my network of coworkers and friends. What is included in this collection are portions taken from more sustained conversations; there were countless additional informal conversations and interviews that I have not been able to include. Many people I spoke with referred me to other interviewee candidates. In some cases, I made "cold calls," or unannounced visits, to people in their offices who appeared likely to be good sources of information. While not all of them were able to take the time to speak with me, and given my mode of travel I was not able to schedule meetings in advance or even defer meetings because I needed to maintain my travel schedule, many people dropped what they were doing and took time to visit with me.
I returned home with close to ninety hours of video- and audiotape and notes. With lots of assistance, I transcribed these recordings and ended up with almost a thousand pages of material. As I hope is evident from the brief overview above, the voices and personal experiences vary across time and space. Though I was limited in my ability to conduct extended interviews with young people, they are present here and occupy a prominent space in the imagined future of the immigrant population and the very real future of this country as they come of age and participate in or lead the way to finding resolutions to the enduring challenges associated with immigration. As I made selections of whom to include and exclude, I considered geography, the overall quality of the interview, the age of the interviewee, the range of topics addressed, the status of the interview, and how the particular experiences fit the overall historical experience of Latinos in the U.S. In addition, I considered the ethnicity of the interviewee, as I wanted to include a diversity of Latino and non-Latino voices. No attempt was made to achieve a perfectly proportionate representation of the population.
I approached each interview as a conversation rather than a structured interview or survey. While I had some guiding questions, these were designed to be open-ended so as to let the conversation flow according to the interviewees' interests and experience. For some people this worked quite well, but with many I had to actively elicit detailed responses. The concerns below guided me and influenced with whom I sought to converse.
- What is the individual story of someone's arrival to a particular location? How did they or their family get from point A to point B (as an immigrant or as an internal migrant)?
- How is Latino immigration changing the U.S.?
- How is recent immigration similar to and/or different from past waves of immigration?
- Is there a basis for people's fear about new immigrants changing "the" national culture?
- What are the benefits and challenges of Latinoization to local communities?
- Do the benefits of being in the U.S. outweigh sacrifices made by new immigrants? Has it been worth it?
As I edited the conversations, some of them, like those with Humberto Fuentes, Adela Marmion, Magda Iriarte, and Ernesto Portillo, were akin to oral histories. I strove to remove my voice as much as possible to give their stories prominence. In many cases, the dialogue is necessarily dynamic, and this required that my questions and responses remain intact, so I shortened the interviews by removing portions of the conversation that were less interesting or repeated topics addressed more provocatively in other interviews. Since I was meeting many of the interviewees for the first time, I often told them my personal and family story as a second-generation Mexican American and a professor as a way to earn their trust and make clear my intentions and my willingness to reciprocate. I was often asked questions about the experiences I was having on my trip, which I have chosen to delete here.
During my trip, I met people from all walks of life. I also read local and national newspapers on a daily basis to keep apprised of immigration issues as they arose during this time period. I often found strong resonance between the two, but there were many instances in which local coverage of events was dissonant with what was occurring nationally or not in line with the conversations I had with local community members. My perspective on small-town America was changed as I realized that despite the fact that many parochial attitudes persist, in many instances these communities were extraordinarily open-minded.
There are a few interviews and oral histories that were collected prior to and following the trip in Minnesota, which I have inserted alongside others from this state. Finally, I should note that I have striven to retain the integrity of language usage by each interviewee—be it English, Spanish, Spanglish, or code-switching. As a child of the pre-bilingual education era whose parents' educational experience was steeped in a period of American socialization that disallowed speaking anything other than English in school, I am not fully bilingual. As I have written elsewhere, my own linguistic history is part of the Latino experience in the U.S.1 Consequently, most of the interviews here were held with people who had at least some English facility. My lack of full fluency in Spanish surely prohibited me from fully engaging some potential interviewees and/or establishing the rapport necessary to hold a more meaningful dialogue. I address this issue more fully in A Journey Across Our America, where I share my awareness of and frustrations with how my language limitations had a detrimental impact on my experience and this project.
In the book's conclusion I offer some reflections on the historical and contemporary factors that influence immigration policy and practice that should be taken into account for a more comprehensive understanding of how this issue shapes people's lives. It is my hope that readers will gain further insight into the enormous complexity of immigration and the simple yet profound truths about the human will for basic survival. The voices heard in this collection provide an array of perspectives from the ground level of those whose lives are affected most immediately as they struggle to deal with a sustained American ambivalence, if not antipathy, toward Latinos and the increasingly draconian and Janus-faced attitude directed at new immigrants.