Two Strains of Violence, Part One of Two
This column was originally published in July 2006. The piece has been seriously rewritten, and references to dated statistics and and insignificant events have been removed.
For over 20 years, whenever the US Congress is debating a stricter immigration law, hundreds of thousands Mexican-Americans take to the streets. The demonstrators, often waving Mexican flags, demand rights for the illegals and accuse conservative Republicans of racism. The substance of much of their complaint is that Mexicans, illegal as well as legal, have made an indispensable contribution to the American economy, and yet they are treated with disrespect and hostility. The same arguments appear regularly in Mexican newspapers. Some of the propaganda had a common source: the speeches of President George W. Bush, who was widely quoted in Mexico as an advocate for the illegals.
Although conservative commentators in the press criticized the demonstrators, they were far more harsh to the members of Congress who wanted to criminalize illegal entry into the United States. Across the country, however, rank and file conservatives and even some liberals deluged talk radio and newspaper editorial pages with complaints. “Doesn’t anybody care,” argued the conservatives, “that illegal aliens are in fact illegal?” Between the rhetoric of the demonstrators and the rhetoric of their critics, there was and is a broad gap. Part of the gap is the result of the basic disagreement of the two sides; part of it derives from the different loyalties of the two groups—conservatives to their vision of “America the way it oughta be” and the Latinos to their Mexican-American identity. But just as apparent in the attitudes of the two groups is a divergent approach to legal and political questions. For the conservatives, the value of law and order and the US Constitution is taken for granted like the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration. For the Mexicans, loyalty to family and nation, love and honor seemed to take precedence over the conservatives’ 18th century abstractions.
Mexico and the United States are quite different countries, and educated Americans with an open mind should concede that Mexican culture is stranger than, say, the cultures of Italy or Poland, and richer than that of the the two great nations to the north of Mexico. It is the very richness and antiquity of Mexican culture that many Americans, nourished on the thin gruel of classical liberalism, are likely to resent.
The late Octavio Paz, certainly one of the finest North American writers of the late 20th century, thought Americans instinctively feared the zoot-suited Pachucos who prowled the streets of California cities in the 1940’s, but it is more probable that most middle-class Americans felt the same contempt for the Pachucos as they did for the “low riders” of the 1960’s and 70’s. Other people's lower classes--Sicilian Mafiosi, Black gangsters, Indians or Rednecks in their favorite bars--are always inexplicable and intimidating to the middling classes of Anglo-America.
Every Mexican rights group complains about the racism and bigotry of Anglo-Americans. The reductio ad absurdum of their complaining was reached by the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, who claimed he was discriminated against when he attended high school in America. His father was of German, French, and Spanish descent, and his paternal grandfather was an immigrant to Mexico from Ohio! His mother is Spanish. Fox spent a year in Wisconsin, improving his English, and he rose through the ranks of the Coca Cola company to become CEO of Coke in Mexico. The poor little Pachuco. Handsome, debonaire, intelligent, hardworking. If his schoolmates in Prairie du Chien had any cause for resentment, it would be the result of envy, not contempt.
Nonetheless, Mexican complaints about prejudice are not always without justification. Whatever Americans may say in public, most of them do not much like Mexicans, particularly the working-class Mexicans they are most likely to meet. On the other hand, Americans are hardly unique in having ethnic prejudices. There has probably never been a time in human history when members of different ethnic groups respected each other. Greeks despised Romans as crude; Romans despised Greeks as effeminate, and the French and English, many centuries later, played out the same little drama of chauvinism and contempt. A people defines itself in part by rejecting the bad qualities it attributes to foreigners. If Anglo-Americans display their respect for cleanliness, self-restraint, and lawfulness by deriding Mexicans as dirty, violent, and lawless, Mexicans return the compliment, making fun of gringos as stiff, unemotional, unspiritual, and sexless.
The gringo stereotype is not restricted to ignorant peasants who have never met educated Americans. Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most important novelist, has spent a great deal of time in America and speaks excellent English. Although Fuentes has picked up many American friends and admirers, his fiction still perpetuates the familiar self-serving stereotypes and clichés. In The Old Gringo, the old American (Ambrose Bierce) is a joyless writer who comes to Mexico seeking a beautiful death; the lovely American schoolmarm, whose family has lived the lie of respectability only finds erotic fulfillment in the embrace of a peasant who has become one of Pancho Villa’s officers. Col. Arroyo feels he can share his deepest feelings with the gringuita, because she is:
from a land as far away and strange as the United States, the Other World, the world that is not Mexico, the foreign and distant and curious, eccentric, and marginal world of the Yankees who did not enjoy good food or violent revolution or women in bondage, or beautiful churches, and broke with all traditions just for the sake of it, as if there were good things only in the future and in novelty…
Fuentes’ The Crystal Frontier is a brilliant set of short stories that comprise a novel whose theme is the border itself, and while he has justifiable anger against Americans who have exploited and despised the Mexican poor, he is as engrained in his own prejudices as any wetback-hating redneck. Given current rates of immigration and fertility, the United States is rapidly headed toward a situation resembling Canada’s, which is bilingual, bicultural, and bi-national. What would (or rather will) such a country be like? The frontier between Mexican and the United is moving ever northward, perhaps a glimpse of the future can be gained by a visiting the series of border towns that ring the border. From the West, where San Diego—epitome of American opulence and consumerism—is faced by tacky and squalid Tijuana that every year launches tens of thousands of illegal immigrants into California’s underground labor markets, to El Paso and Juarez, a common city divided by historical conflicts and a border that is more irritating than relevant, to Del Rio and Acuña, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, McAllen and Reynosa, Brownsville and Matamoras, America and Mexico are redefining themselves and each other in a cultural equivalent of Spanglish.