In the spring of 1983, while I was a first-year student at a community college in suburban Dallas, I took a historical geology course as a science requisite. About midway through the semester, the instructor brought in a guest speaker; a man who described himself as a “water rights activist.” It was a term I’d never heard before; in fact, no one else in the class I knew had heard of it. Water rights, of course, are part of the overall environmental movement, and people are giving it much more scrutiny now as climate change becomes critical. The man (I can’t recall his name) explained how large populations in any given location can stress out the area’s natural resources. And, water is the most basic of all natural resources. But, amidst his light-hearted dialogue, he suddenly mentioned illegal Mexican immigrants. He was concerned that more people taking up residence in Texas and the rest of the southwestern U.S. were unnecessarily straining the region’s valuable resources – mainly water. It was – and still is – a compelling argument. And, I would have agreed with him, if he hadn’t blatantly classified all Hispanics under one group: illegal immigrants, Mexicans, “Chicanos.”
“Or, whatever those people call themselves,” he said, inciting a few chuckles from the crowd.
‘Those people?’ I repeated to myself. He might as well have stared at the handful of Hispanics in the room and said ‘you people.’ I’ve had that thrown at me a few times.
During his speech, he pointed to a large map of the state of Texas he’d brought with him; one that displayed population centers in comparison to water resources. “Now imagine this minus a few Chicanos,” he said, before proceeding to explain further what it was all about.
I forgot what he said because I’d lost interest in him. He was no longer jovial and quaint; he was arrogant and bigoted. Every fact he uttered after he presented his map was lost. I had grown angry. I already knew by then that my father’s paternal ancestors had been in Texas since the 1580’s. My father’s later genealogical research proved just how much influence our family had on Texas some 200 years before it joined the United States. But, in 1983, I was a rather naïve 19-year-old who was just becoming aware of his surroundings. I’d already faced some prejudice in high school. But, here I was in college; higher academia; in a science class. And, a 50-something Anglo man essentially referred to me as a “Chicano” and an “illegal immigrant.”
He then did something totally bizarre; he extracted a guitar and belted out a homemade tune about some long-standing Texas politician. Again, I forgot the name because I was too annoyed with the “water rights activist” by now. When he finished squawking, the classroom erupted into delighted applause. I remained mute, my hands on my lap.
After the next class, I approached the instructor and asked if she could make time for a meeting in her office. I wanted to talk to her about that guest speaker. I wanted to be a diplomatic. She said yes, and I met her later in the day. I explained how offended I was by his verbiage, adding that me and most other Hispanics were born and raised in the U.S. She was surprised by my reaction. She literally had no idea and fumbled an apology.
That was in 1983, and now, nearly two decades later, with the clown show known as the 2012 presidential campaign season in full swing, I’m almost contemptuous of politicians’ attempts to placate the Hispanic vote. Moreover, I’m still annoyed to find that the issue of immigration – specifically illegal immigration – seems to be the only concern of the Hispanic American community. I know many Hispanics give that impression with their own focus on immigration. But, like most people in the U.S., my biggest grievance is the economy, along with unemployment.
Hispanics have a longer history in this country than any other ethnic group, save Indigenous Americans, with whom we share a common heritage. Spaniards established the first permanent European colony in what is now North America. But, in modern times, we still had to work hard to attain our fair share of the American dream, combating blatant racism and the old guard status quo that dictated where we could live and work. Now, we’re mixed up in this awful immigration fight with no easy solutions; a fiasco that has people on all sides paranoid and angry.
I don’t support illegal immigration – from Latin America or anywhere in the world. The laws are very clear: you cannot enter the United States without proper documentation. Hispanics have fought long and hard for equal rights in employment, housing, education and all other aspects of American life. Sneaking across the border under the cover of darkness is not one of them. It never was and it never will be. That viewpoint has made me a traitor in the eyes of many other Hispanics; both American-born and immigrant. But, I structure my opinions around other people’s sentiments. I consider myself an American first; a proud mix of Spanish, Mexican Indian and German extraction. Some of my own ancestors fought for Texas against Mexico – including one with my exact name! The much-heralded Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, along with most of the others, were outsiders; that is, non-Texans.
Many Americans are upset with the mass influx of illegal immigrants who have disregarded our laws. If only the latter group would show some respect for our country and emigrate legally, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, their actions have generated an unprecedented level of fear among some folks – especially the narrow-minded – and allowed all Latinos to be branded with the unsavory title of “illegal alien.”
While my paternal ancestry in Texas extends back to the late 16th century, I am also the son of an immigrant. My mother was born just outside México City. But, she was already a U.S. citizen at birth, since her father was born in Michigan. After my maternal grandmother died in 1940, my grandfather moved his four kids to Dallas where he’d found a job in the midst of World War II. His mother-in-law, who already spoke fluent English, came with them. My grandfather got his children social security numbers immediately and insisted that they speak only English in that household. Some Hispanics laugh at me when I tell them my mother was born in México. They get even uglier when I tell them my grandfather was German-American. You don’t make friends with people by mocking their families. It’s ironic though; in high school, it was the Anglo and Irish kids who hurled racist statements at me. Now, it’s other Hispanics.
Several years ago, during the Independence Day weekend, a friend and I went nightclubbing. We started at a Tejano bar just north of downtown Dallas. I donned my American flag vest; something I usually wear during the Memorial and Independence Day periods. But, on that one night, my friend suggested I remove it before we enter that Tejano bar; noting that, if anything, I should be wearing a Mexican flag vest, lest I offend the crowd.
“Excuse me?!” I replied. “This is the United States; not México! If someone doesn’t like that I’m wearing this American flag vest, they’re more than welcome to tell it to my face – in Spanish or English. And then, stand back and watch while I rip their head off and dump shit down their throat.”
He didn’t pursue the matter, and I didn’t remove the vest. No one complained about it – at least not to me.
Some people accuse me of being confused or conflicted. I’m neither. One girl dubbed me a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside. “Well,” I told her, “I am White – White as in Spaniard and German.” It seemed I had to remind her – as I do many people – that Spaniards are “White,” too; as in European, as in Caucasian. Read my essay, “Name Calling,” and you’ll get a sense how ridiculous that racial stuff can get.
The U.S. is at a crossroads; an uncomfortable fork of its own making. Some large companies and farms began employing illegal immigrants – mostly Mexicans – so they could avoid paying decent wages and health care costs and skirt OSHA safety laws. As many states and individual cities target illegal immigrants, some of those farms and meat-packing plants find themselves idle; there’s no one to do that kind of work. That kind of work is hard and dirty. The often-spoiled American middle and upper classes can’t imagine themselves in such positions. If it doesn’t involve Microsoft and a laptop, it seems they want nothing to do with it. When former Mexican president Vicente Fox stated several years ago that Mexican immigrants do the work in the U.S. that our nation’s Black population won’t, he got branded a racist and a bigot by the usual voices on the far left: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc. But, I can relay from first-hand experience that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, large numbers of Hispanic immigrants poured into New Orleans to help clean up and rebuild the city. While the mostly Black population was airlifted to other cities where they took up residence in hotels and sports stadiums, Mexicans, Guatemalans and the like were making their way into the decimated “Crescent City” to make it habitable again. I don’t believe the far left complained about that part of the racial divide.
President Obama and his supporters can laud the “Dream Act” all they want. But, it’s not my issue. Even though I’ve been unemployed for some time, I’m not likely to run to the nearest chicken slaughter house or peach orchard to look for work. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how he and his trophy wife can appeal to Hispanic voters without offending the Republican base that has come to loathe Latinos. Immigration isn’t a Hispanic issue; it’s an American issue. I want political operatives to stop placing Latinos beneath that single umbrella – immigrants, illegal immigrants, Chicanos. ‘You people.’ Our people. We’re American people. We don’t all look alike and we certainly don’t all think alike.