Mexifornia: A State of Becomingby Victor Davis Hanson
Victor Davis Hanson locates the cause of our immigration quagmire in the opportunistic coalition that stymies immigration reform and, even worse, stifles any honest discussion of the present crisis. Conservative corporations, contractors and agribusiness demand cheap wage labor from Mexico, whatever the social consequences. Meanwhile, "progressive" academics, journalists, government bureaucrats and La Raza advocates see illegal aliens as a vast new political constituency for those peddling the notion that victimhood, not citizenship, is the key to advancement. The troubles Hanson identifies may have reached critical mass in California, but they also affect Americans who inhabit "Mexizona," "Mexichusetts" and other states of becoming. Hanson follows the fortunes of Hispanic friends he has known all his life -- how they have succeeded in America and how they regard the immigration quandary. But if Mexifornia is an emotionally generous look at the ambition and vigor of people who have made California strong, it is also an indictment of the policies that got California into its present mess. In the end, Hanson is hopeful that our traditions of assimilation, integration and intermarriage may yet remedy a predicament that politicians and ideologues have allowed to get out of hand.
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MexiforniaA State of Becoming
By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
ENCOUNTER BOOKSCopyright © 2003 Victor Davis Hanson
All right reserved.
Chapter Oneabout Mexican Immigration?
Despite its Statue of Liberty, recitations of Emma Lazarus's poetry, and melting-pot imagery, America has always struggled with issues of immigration-mostly when it was a matter of the poor, dispossessed non-Anglos or non-Protestants coming in by the millions. Boatloads of refugees were denied entrance to the United States during the Holocaust. Starving Irish were compared to lower primates and denied employment; Italians were demeaned as little more than criminals; Poles were dismissed as stupid menials fit only for unskilled labor. As for "Oriental" immigration, there is no need to talk of it, since whole university departments now exist to explore the racism of the "Yellow Peril."
North America was originally settled largely by northern Europeans-English, Germans, Scandinavians, French and Dutch-who came as farmers and settlers in the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries and set the cultural protocols, so in effect they enjoyed a head start in adaptation, which later arrivals have not had. But even then, there was prejudice from an entrenched Anglo-Saxon elite; my grandfather's Swedish family came en masse to California to help found the town of Kingsburg (near Selma), the idea being that only within a colony of similar "stupid square-heads" could Swedes be left alone to prosper.
The second wave of immigrants-southern Europeans, Asians, Irish and Latinos-encountered an entrenched dominant culture of mostly Anglo- and northern-European Protestants, and suffered accordingly. Entire libraries document the plight of these aggrieved arrivals and their strange century-long metamorphosis from the despised "other" into the accepted majority of "whites"-as their growing incomes slowly washed away their racial and religious differences.
In a narrow sense, the mass arrival of millions of poor Mexicans is not all that different from the great influx of other groups who were poor and not northern European. We see now some of the same evolutionary signs that appeared in the nineteenth century: one to two generations of poverty and frequent degradation, followed by a generation of middle-class Mexican-Americans intermarrying with other groups and moving into traditional suburbs. Between 1995 and 2000, Hispanic income on average grew 27 percent-a rate of growth faster than that of any other minority group-as a virtually new class of assimilated and affluent Mexican-Americans arose. Their culture was now indistinguishable from the majority culture, and thus their ethnicity was quickly redefined as more or less "white," as had happened to Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Punjabis before them.
Yet the old assimilationist model-still secretly admired, but publicly ridiculed-is working efficiently for only a minority of new immigrants, given their enormous numbers and the peculiar circumstances of immigration from Mexico in the last half-century. So what accounts for the stubborn resistance to assimilation, besides the increased numbers and our own lack of confidence in the melting pot? What makes Mexican immigrants so different even from the recently arrived Armenians, Chinese, Russians or Laotians?
Why, for example, do my second-generation Asian students often speak little Lao or Korean, date non-Asians, become hyper-American in their tastes and prejudices, and worry (often openly and rudely) about the sheer numbers of Mexican people who speak poor English, show few professional skills, and are overrepresented in our jails? And why do my Mexican-American students, even those of nearly 100 percent Indian heritage, face hostility from their own ethnic communities when they assimilate, speak perfect English, and prefer Latin and Greek literature to Chicano studies, attend the annual classics picnic but not the separate Latino graduation ceremony, and consider themselves about as Mexican as I see myself Swedish?
The obvious explanation is the closeness of Mexico, only a short drive to the south rather than oceans away. You can leave Los Angeles and be across the border in about three hours. That geographical nearness-the fact that the richest economy in the world is but a stone's throw from one of the most backward-has always been unfortunate for the Mexican arrival. It is hard to dream of a society further removed from a Mexican ghetto or rural village than is a California suburb. Had Mexicans flocked to Costa Rica, or had New Zealanders rushed into Los Angeles, the present problems of both hosts and guests would be nonexistent. Instead, a young man leaves his pueblo in Yucatan where cattle are starving for lack of fodder, and in two or three days he is mowing, bagging and dumping fescue grass in the most leisured and affluent suburb in America.
Moreover, for the campesino from Mexico there is little physical amputation from the mother country. In contrast, most other arrivals to California found the trip here a psychological guillotine. Their motherland-the Philippines, China, Japan, Basque Spain, Armenia, the Punjab-was cut clean off and discarded. The traditional homesick immigrant was now barricaded in his new homeland by thousands of miles of ocean, with little hope of returning to the Old Country every few months, and thus had to deal with Americans. For the Mexican immigrant, by contrast, the Rio Grande is no ocean, but a trickle easily crossed by a drive over a tiny bridge. A limited visitation, a family reunion-but usually not a permanent return-nourished enough nostalgia for Mexico to war with the creation of a truly American identity.
Most earlier mass migrations were also largely one- or two-time affairs-explosive eruptions rather than a steady flow. The Irish came mainly in the decades after the great mid-nineteenth-century famines, but rarely arrive in any great numbers today. Jews once fled the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe, but no longer immigrate as whole communities. The Cubans came in the hundreds of thousands after the fall of Batista, but after a mere forty years living in their Little Havana they are becoming assimilated and Americanized. Some Floridians may complain that their state's culture resembles Cuba, but in fact because there have not been hundreds of thousands arriving yearly from Cuba, the expatriate Cuban community is doomed-albeit slowly and almost invisibly-to lose its language and culture.
There is also a reason why the white minority in Miami, unlike its equivalent in Los Angeles, is envious of Latinos, and that revolves around the community's undeniable commercial success-a phenomenon not entirely explained by the old generalization that "Cuban immigrants were middle-class refugees and Mexican newcomers were not." Instead, the astute Cuban-American must admit privately, "Thank God for the island of Cuba and for Castro himself, which barred the way back and cut us loose on our own here." Mexicans, on the other hand, migrate by simply walking across a porous border, steadily replenishing the Hispanic community in the United States with fresh aliens who strengthen ties with the world south of the border. Consequently, even after twenty years, 8 out of 10 never become naturalized American citizens-a statistic essentially impossible for expatriate Cubans who fled Castro's communism.
But again, the heart of the problem in California is always the truth we know versus the lie we speak. The reality is that, despite the grandiose boasts, the protestations of undying allegiance and the menacing outbursts of national pride, few immigrants ever really want to return to Mexico. Very few wish to live as they did in Mexico, to live with others who remain part of Mexico-in other words, to be a Mexican in Mexico rather than a Mexican in California. It is one thing to receive treatment and care from a Los Angeles oncologist and chemotherapist, quite another to endure a growing tumor in central Mexico. Professors of Chicano studies here fret about the loss of Spanish, the rising rates of intermarriage and the steady erosion of a "Chicano identity"; yet none wish to replenish their roots by moving their families to rural Mexico and a world of untreated sewage, parasite-infested water and herbalists standing in for cardiologists.
The more sober observers of all races know that if Mexico were separated from the border by a hundred miles of ocean, the so-called minority problem in California would vanish within a generation or two. As it now stands, the constant stream of new arrivals means that for each assimilated Mexican, there are always several more who are not. Unlike Southeast Asians, who came all at once to California and from thousands of miles away following the disaster in Vietnam, Mexicans have had no opportunity to mature together and slowly evolve as a distinct cohort into Americans.
In fact, the opposite is true. An Italian or a Jew knew that if he did not learn English and the American system, he was going to be left behind as his peers pressed ahead. A Mexican in California senses that if he fails to integrate into mainstream American society, there will always be thousands more newcomers like himself who will know almost nothing about the United States, and thus by sheer numbers join him in a viable expatriate culture. A Pole once accepted that she would perpetually stumble through the Cleveland phone book if she kept speaking Polish; a Mexican accepts as a given that Pacific Bell will double the size of its directory assistance just to accommodate her Spanish.
Race-could it be any other way in contemporary America?-is often cited as the most critical issue blocking the aspirations of Hispanics. The standard doctrine, promulgated by university ethnic studies departments, is well known: Mexicans were never able to morph as easily into "whites" as did the discriminated-against Jews or Irish simply because, like African-Americans, they were a people of a darker color and thus, throughout the long brutal history of the Southwest, were deemed inferior by the racist white majority. Indeed, who can deny the sometimes shameful exploits of the Texas Rangers or the visceral contempt that the great southwestern cattle barons had for the Mexican menial laborer whom he treated little better than his cows?
The problem with the accepted dogma is not that it is entirely false-thousands of racist writings and years of official biased protocol can indeed be used to substantiate such a view-but that it is only a partial explanation for Mexican disappointments, and in any case it belongs largely to the past. If only skin color can ensure entrée into American society, how have Arabs, Koreans, Armenians and Japanese found parity with, and in many cases economic superiority over, the traditional white majority? Jet-black Punjabis, for example, are prominent in the professions of central California-medicine, law, agribusiness and academia-oblivious to the fact that their hue is often darker than that of African-Americans. Asians have a higher per capita income than California whites.
Thus the challenge is not to identify racism, but to assess the degree to which it or its legacy can affect a people today. Punjabis historically have not always been treated nicely in America, but they come from thousands of miles across a wide ocean with identifiable skills, close family networks, some English proficiency, a willingness to learn more, and a tradition of entrepreneurship, all of which seem to make race irrelevant. In fact, their ebony children who attend elite universities are not eligible for affirmative action. If anything, the University of California subtly and off the record looks askance at their overrepresentation-and this is an institution that already has been publicly rebuked for using de facto quotas in turning away qualified Asians from its Berkeley campus. Californians are increasingly cynical and sense that affirmative action and special preferences are based neither on skin color nor on patterns of past discrimination, but simply are tied clumsily to a particular minority's failure to match the perceived economic performance of whites.
Koreans, likewise, are as "unwhite" as Mexicans; yet their culture puts a premium on business, education and family, not government largess. Like the Punjabi immigrants of today, and like the Japanese, Chinese and Armenian immigrants of the past, they have shrugged off the worst sorts of racial prejudices. So far, Mexican-American citizens have not been interned; nor have they been blown to bits while building railroads; nor have they suffered a holocaust by an invading Islamic power-disasters that did not stop the Japanese, Chinese and Armenians from reaching per capita economic parity with the majority in California. These other immigrants were at the end of their migrant odysseys and more likely to ponder the present and the future than to live in the past. I suppose "Don't get mad, get even" was thematic among these other victims of American racism and oppression. In my hometown of Selma, Armenians were zoned out of particular neighborhoods in the 1920s and were refused entry to the municipal swimming pool. Yet in two generations their capital and influence ensured that their homes and their private pools were the town's largest and most envied.
No Armenian today, despite skin color with a higher melanin content than that of the average white, claims to be "a person of color." Most Japanese do not either. "A person of color" does not necessarily mean that someone is, in fact, "colored" in any real sense; the term is largely absent among communities of dark Punjabis, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians and a host of brown and olive peoples. Instead, the nomenclature advertises that the self-described minority has deliberately defined himself in opposition to whatever "white" culture is-either out of real pride, justified anger, petty hurt, racial hatred or simple crass opportunism. And in a state rapidly growing more multiracial, we will soon need racial rubrics like those of the old Confederacy, backed by new-age genetic tracking, to figure out who exactly is "a person of color" one-third, one-half or one-sixteenth nonwhite blood?
In any case, money has always eventually trumped race in America. The truism that race matters above all is forgotten when people of color earn more or become better educated than white people, but it returns with a vengeance when they remain isolated, poor and dependent. For all our boutique hatred of the moneyed classes, we accept that American plutocracy is a far more fluid system of opportunity than entrenched European or Asian hierarchies of class, color, ancestry and education.
Excerpted from Mexifornia by VICTOR DAVIS HANSON Copyright © 2003 by Victor Davis Hanson. Excerpted by permission.
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