Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 300 | Julio 2006


Central America

The Ideological Bricks of the Anti-Immigrant Wall

What kind of self-identity does a country have that surrounds itself with walls and hides behind paranoid laws? Central and Latin American proposals regarding our emigrants should bear in mind the way the gringo lawmakers think and the ideological bricks they use to build their walls.

José Luis Rocha

On August 6, 1890, a German immigrant named William Kemmler was the first person to be executed in the electric chair in the United States, at New York’s Auburn prison. A Tunisian immigrant living in France was the last to be executed by the guillotine, in 1977.

Immigrants have never been the “cup of tea” of societies that, with little insight and usually even less justice, often call themselves “welcoming.” US historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger argued that in his country the men with the longest colonial lineage viewed recent arrivals with a kind of alarm activated by each new generation. Even Caucasian immigrants, blue-eyed blonds from the most western parts of Europe, have triggered fear and disparagement. Benjamin Franklin declared that the German immigrants pouring into Pennsylvania were “generally the most stupid of their own nation…. Not being used to liberty, they know not how to make modest use of it.”

According to Schlesinger, the most hackneyed objections to immigration, based on stereotypes of unwillingness to assimilate, of pauperism and criminality, date back to those early years. In later years, even more congested with immigrants, new arguments developed out of the fear of economic competition.

The Sensenbrenner Bill:
Walls, fines, control, persecution...

When terror and rejection of immigrants spring up with renewed determination there is a multiplication of policies, mechanisms, speeches and resources for controlling, deporting and criminalizing. Defining an enemy forms part of and solidifies the demagogic vote-getting strategy of rightwing parties. George W. Bush has defined enemies both distant and close at hand—Muslims and immigrants, respectively. The tension is evident: politicians want to throw them out, businessmen need to hire them. The contradiction is just as apparent, but dissolves into nothingness when it is shown that the cost of labor is inversely proportional to the number and effectiveness of restrictive immigration measures; or, put another way, “more irregularity equals more profits.” The restrictive measures redistribute the costs of the immigrants’ presence, with taxpayers financing the construction of the irregularity and the businesses capitalizing on it.

To grease this lucrative system, which produces both votes and dollars, steps have been taken in the past six months or so that express just how far the temperature of immigrant-focused policies has risen. On December 16, 2005, the US House of Representatives passed HR 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, better known as the Sensenbrenner bill, for its promoter, Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

Among other things, this bill proposes constructing a 1,120-kilometer wall at points along the US border with Mexico where the greatest number of undocumented immigrants cross; granting the federal government custody of “illegal aliens” detained by local authorities to stop a lack of resources from leading to them being released without due process; obliging employees to verify the legal status of its workers through electronic means; sending reports to Congress proving that these verifications are being made; eliminating federal, state and local government concessions to apply a “sanctuary” policy (cities such as Chicago and New York have had such policies, which ignore restrictive dispositions); and providing satellite communication among immigration officials.

The law requires all border patrol uniforms to be made in the United States to avoid counterfeits; requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to report to Congress on the number of OTMs (Other than Mexicans) and of immigrants from countries that promote terror apprehended and deported; obliges all undocumented immigrants to pay US$3,000 before their deporta-tion if they agree to leave voluntarily, but don’t adhere to the terms of the agreement; establishes a 60-day grace period for voluntary departure; requires a study on a possible border wall with Canada; sets a 10-year minimum sentence for carrying false documents; requires the criminal record of any foreigners requesting legal status to ensure that they aren’t on the terrorist list; and establishes a sentence of no less than three years imprisonment for anyone who takes in undocumented immigrants.

The law also adds the crimes of trading and trafficking in immigrants to the status of money laundering; increases the penalty for employing undocumented foreigners to US$7,500 for the first offense, US$15 for the second and US$40,000 for any subsequent ones; and prohibits the provision of aid to an undocumented immigrant, applying the same jail sentence to those who consciously disobey this mandate and assist an immigrant’s reentry as corresponds to the immigrant. Although this last disposition is particularly addressed to traffickers, as written in the law it also affects churches, charity institutions and neighbors who provide undocumented immigrants with food, clothes or shelter.

The Senate Judicial Committee later approved another bill aimed at incorporating security measures and certain mechanisms to regularize the presence of some undocumented immigrants, as well as a program for guest workers. But this bill had the extremely thorny task of having to conform to what was established in the Sensenbrenner bill, which became even thornier with the signals issued by the US government in response to the huge protests involving immigrants and the groups that provide them solidarity.

Fences, barriers and blockades
but very few discordant voices

The US government’s counterpunch to the demonstrations of millions of immigrants came in various ways. Repression was not missing among the measures for immediate application. As sociologist James Petras charged in a May 3, 2006, article titled “Mesoamerica comes to North America: The Dialectics of the Migrant Workers’ Movement,” “The Immigration police have recently escalated their mass ‘round-ups’ at work sites trying to provoke a climate of intimidation. During the week April 21-28, NeoCon Chief of Homeland Security Agency, Michael Chertoff directed the arrest of 1,100 undocumented migrants in 26 states.”

Soon after, on May 15, President Bush ordered the deployment of 6,000 soldiers along the Mexican border to buttress border patrols pursuing undocumented migrants. Two days later, by a vote of 83 to 16, the Senate approved the construction of a three-fence barrier along 595 kilometers of the border and an 804-kilometer barrier to block the crossing of vehicles between the two countries. It also passed an amendment excluding any possible legalization program for undocumented foreigners with criminal backgrounds, including those who have committed either one serious crime or three minor ones.

The government of the country on the other side of these walls justified the wall and the military deployment as providing security to the migrants. Surely it had white-collar migrants in mind. Few voices disagreed and even fewer got heard. Some who did used a double-edged argument. Even a thinker like Jorge G. Castañeda, who spoke of the uselessness of building a wall along the US-Mexican border, described the conflicts around Latin American migration to the North mainly in terms of Mexico’s relations with the United States—excluding any leading role for other Latin American countries—and advocated policies to restrict the migrant traffic. In Castañeda’s words in Nicaragua’s El Nuevo Diario, “Mexico must assume the responsibility for regulating this traffic, which means more than just sealing its southern border. The government could, for example, double the social security payments to households where the man is the one who stays home, threaten to revoke agrarian reform rights after years of absence from the rural communities and establish strangulation points in the highways on the Tehuantepec Isthmus.” In his version of reality, the physical wall must be replaced by a barrier that combines “carrot and stick” policies with police operations.

Who are we? US identity feels threatened

A country that surrounds itself with walls and hides behind paranoid measures does not seem very consistent with its self-proclaimed devotion to freedom. The US migratory discourse and policies have marked a major shift that coincides with many other developed migrant-receiving countries. US sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein noted the contradiction in this shift when he pointed out that the Soviet Union was indignantly accused of violating human rights when it refused to allow its citizens to emigrate freely, but when the post-communist regimes reversed that policy, the wealthier countries immediately threw up blockades to the emigrants’ entry.

All the evil talk about immigrants is being resuscitated and bandied about. Wallerstein groups the slander into two blocs: 1) that immigrants reduce the income levels of nationals by working in poorly paid jobs and obtaining benefits from state assistance programs, and 2) that they represent a social “problem” whether because they are a burden on the others, are more inclined to commit criminal acts or insist on clinging to their customs and do not “assimilate” into the receiving countries.

These perceptions and complaints are the preliminary project of the planned wall. Physical walls need ideological walls. Exploiting his fame acquired with The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington published another book a little over a year ago titled, Who are we? The challenges to America’s National Identity. It’s an extensive disquisition on US identity and how it is being threatened by the massive migratory flows of Latinos. It could be called the educated version of all the fears unleashed by the avalanche of Latinos, crystallized in the form of intellectual arguments. It has the virtue of being a condensed presentation of the objections to the migration of Latin Americans in particular, which thus deserves considered attention by those in our migrant-sending countries who are drafting policy and lobbying proposals. Such proposals must keep in mind how gringos view their identity, migration in general, and Latino migrants in particular.

Thesis 1: An identity that has varied

Huntington argues three theses. He begins by recognizing that interest in US identity has varied over the years. Only in the 17th century did the British colonists identify themselves not only as residents of their individual colonies, but also as Americans. After independence, the idea of a US nation took shape gradually. In the 19th century, national identity dominated other identities only after the Civil War, while US nationalism flourished in the subsequent century. In the 1960s, however, sub-national, bi-national and transnational identities began to rival and erode the preponderance of national identity. The tragic events of 9-11 brought national identity back to center stage: US citizens are most inclined to identify with their country when they feel it’s in danger.

Thesis 2: The US creed

Huntington’s second thesis is that while US citizens have defined the substance of their identity over the centuries in terms of race, ethnicity, ideology and culture, race and ethnicity have now been widely eliminated, with Americans seeing their country as a multiracial society. The US creed, formulated by Thomas Jefferson and elaborated upon by many others, is mainly seen as the crucial element that defines US identity. This creed, however, was the distinct product of the Anglo-Protestant culture of the colonists who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The key elements of that culture include the English language, Christianity, religious commitment, the English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers and individual rights and the Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic and the conviction that human beings have the capacity and the duty to create heaven on earth. Historically, millions of migrants were drawn to the United States by this culture and by the economic opportunities it was building. Thus, the United States isn’t a nation of migrants, but of colonists who came to build the Kingdom of Heaven on that earth.

Thesis 3: The Anglo-Protestant culture

This thesis holds that the Anglo-Protestant culture has been central to US identity for over three centuries. As many observers have recognized, it is the common denominator that distinguishes Americans from other peoples. In the late 20th century, the importance and substance of this culture were challenged by a new migrant wave from Latin America and Asia, by the popularity of multiculturalism and diversity in intellectual and political circles, by the dissemination of Spanish as a second US language and the Hispanic American tendencies of US society, by the affirmation of group identities based on race, ethnicity and gender, by the impact of the diasporas and of the governments of their countries of origin, and by the growing interest of the elites in cosmopolitan and transnational identities.

All these tendencies posed a challenge to the English language and to the US creed and cultural nucleus. In other words, they challenged US identity. Latinos, argues Huntington, are particularly dangerous because there are too many of them, they’re Catholic, they keep their language, and their endogenous marriages and other traits don’t lend themselves to assimilation of the US creed and Anglo-Protestant culture. They are a cultural perturbation that could deform the whole ethos that made the Unites States the great nation it is today.

As a response to these challenges, US identity could gear itself toward: 1) a United States based on the US creed, but lacking its original historical cultural nucleus and united only by adherence to that creed; 2) a bifurcated United States, with two languages (Spanish and English) and two cultures (Anglo-Protestant and Hispanic); 3) an exclusivist nation, once more defined along the lines of race and ethnicity, excluding or subordinating those who aren’t white and European; 4) a revitalized United States that reaffirms its historical Anglo-Protestant culture and its religious commitment and values, and stands up to a none-too-friendly world; and 5) a combination of these and other possibilities.

An ideological cornerstone for the wall

Huntington wasn’t the first to highlight the determining role of the founding creed and the first colonists. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the major contributors to the US system’s rosy legend, went so far as to claim that he could see America’s entire destiny contained in the first puritans who disembarked on those shores.

Is it possible to determine the veracity of this affirmation? Can we conclusively describe the identity of a people? The problem of identities, says analyst Fernando Escalante Gozalbo, “will always be confusing, debated, difficult to get a grip on, not because it is in itself more complex than others, but because identities are by definition imaginary and can be built making use of anything. The problem can be summarized in one sentence: talking about identity is engaging in politics.” Some have mentioned that Huntingtonian reactions are an evasion of economic problems by displacing them to the cultural plane, which is more susceptible to sentimental manipulation around nostalgia and fears of the “other.”

In any event, it’s reasonable to take Huntington’s writings as symptomatic of a certain political sector, including the one that approved the Sensenbrenner Law, an ideological elaboration at the service of the less friendly positions toward migrants, the verbal crystallization of a sometimes very pernicious emotion and above all an ideological cornerstone for the wall with which some legislators aspire to seal the border with Mexico. Huntington’s theses need to be debated and taken into account in the design of Latin American countries’ policies and lobbying strategies because they are the academic formulation of a rejection expressed in other spheres by police nets and racial harassment.

Are we a threat because
there are too many of us?

Let’s respond to Huntington, starting with a look at the numbers. It seems to Huntington that there are way too many of us. It’s true that our numbers have been increasing so that we now constitute the largest ethnic minority in the Unites States. There were just 1.7 million of us in 1970, a figure that had climbed to 4.39 million by 1980 and to 8.37 million by 1990. By 2000, the nearly 16 million people born in Latin America and living in the United States made us the majority: 51.7% of the total of 31,107,889 foreigners in that country, 36% of whom are Central Americans and Mexicans.

In Arizona, Florida and Texas, over 70% of those born abroad are Latin Americans. In some states Latinos are more notorious still, even considering the overall population and not just the immigrants, as in the case of states that once belonged to Mexico: 32% of Texas’ total population, 42% of New Mexico’s, 32.4% of California’s and 25.3% of Arizona’s are Latino. There would appear to be some obvious arguments for a reediting of “manifest destiny.”

Even so, we could comfort Mr. Huntington by telling him: “It’s not all that bad; the whites still dominate.” A quick look at the statistics shows that in 1890 and 1910, for example, the weight of those born abroad—14.7% of the total population—was various percentage points above their current weight. The US-born population continues to be very much the majority.

Although its current figure of 11.1% migrants—the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) uses 12.9%—puts the United States well above the 2.9% world average, it’s also well below Oceania’s 18.8%. Not only is it not the region with the most immigrants, it doesn’t even have the fastest growing migrant/total population ratio. Much more spectacular than the doubling of its proportion from 6.1% to 12.9% between 1990 and 2000 was the 1.4% to 10.2% leap made by the former Soviet Union in the same period, or the 3.4% to 8.7% jump experienced by the developed nations as a whole. According to ECLAC, the whole of North America shelters 23.3% of the world’s migrants, usually quite begrudgingly, while the so-called “developing countries” have received 36.9%, despite being less attractive. In Latin America, the Dutch Antilles’ immigrant population is 25.6%, Guadalupe’s is 19.4%, Martinique’s is 14% and Puerto Rico’s is 10%. Clearly many countries are facing much more dramatic situations than the United States, although it is likely that many of the immigrants in those countries are good-natured, prosperous pensioners, not penniless, scrappy Latinos.

Do they fear WASP culture will dissolve?

In the United States, which is almost as big as the whole of Europe, has a per-capita gross domestic product of over $40,000 and a population density of 29 inhabitants per square kilometer, migrant waves can’t have the same impact and meaning as in Belgium (337 inhabitants per square kilometer), Germany (233), the United Kingdom (244), Denmark (125), Italy (192), Switzerland (177), France (109) or Spain (79). But population density may not be the most decisive factor, given the multiplicity of elements at stake. A society’s capacity to absorb immigrants is not the only political and economic factor that should be used to define the indefinable and measure the resistance to measures. There are many political, demographic and economic factors: governance and all its tributary tools, labor markets and the more or less aggressive recruitment by employers, population growth rates, etc. Although no society has an unlimited absorption capacity and it’s impossible to define what it is (although de-penalizing the flows would help us learn it), the cultural barriers raised by xenophobic politicians and thinkers are what most determine the socially acceptable volume of migrants.

What is it that so concerns Huntington and many others? The dilution of whiteness? The dissolution of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in a sea of migrants? After so many migrant waves from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, is it even possible to still argue that the United States is inhabited by English with Presbyterian values? The United States is certainly still mainly a country of palefaces, with 211 million exclusively white inhabitants (75%), nearly 6 million whites with some combination (2%) and barely 64 million non-whites (23%). Even if we subtract the white Latinos from the exclusively whites, we still have over 194 million whites, or 69.1% of the population.

White flight from the Latino onslaught

As often happens, the macro and the micro don’t coincide, especially when the macro is only an average that doesn’t reflect particular situations. The gradual coloration of US whiteness acquires other dimensions at the local level. The transformation of the housing patterns of the micro-spaces greatly alarms the lovers of unblemished whiteness. Certain neighborhoods, city zones, schools and parks are filling up with immigrants, many of whom are Latinos. Some Miami neighborhoods became Cubanized, leading to the birth of Little Havana. Later, as some immigrant waves pushed others out and the most recent arrivals always settle in the most marginal zones, part of Little Havana became Little Managua. Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has gone through something similar. In the mid 19th century it was inhabited by Germans and Irish, who were subsequently replaced by Czech immigrants—turning this neighborhood into the second largest city of what we now call the Czech Republic—and they were in turn replaced by Mexicans in the mid 20th century. Today, nearly 90% of its inhabitants are Latinos. Panic is spreading and whites are moving out of many neighborhoods. That exodus has a name: in the United States the expression “white flight” alludes to the progressive abandonment by white families of neighborhoods or towns with a growing presence of other ethnic groups or whose schools are subject to racial integration programs.

According to journalist Eric Schlosser, nearly a million people left southern California between 1990 and 1995, many of them heading to the more mountainous states. William H. Frey, long-time professor of demography at the University of Michigan, has called this emigration the new white flight. In 1998, California’s white population fell below 50% for the first time since the gold fever. Schlosser notes that the exodus of whites has also modified California’s political equation, converting the birthplace of the “Reagan revolution” into one of the country’s most solidly democratic states.

Xenophobia: Racial crimes
and residential segregation

This white stampede has been neither the only nor even the most ominous reaction to the presence of immigrants. With the imposition in the United States of the notion of “whiteness,” glorified as a guarantee of physical, moral and intellectual superiority, non-whites have been the preferred target of discrimination. In 1986 a group of 20 white men attacked 3 black men in Brooklyn. Between then and 1995, Brooklyn witnessed 300 racially motivated crimes against blacks, 84 against Latinos and 78 against Asians. The whites, who rule the roost there, stand out among the perpetrators of racial crimes. Between 1987 and 1995, they committed 31.4% of the racially-motivated crimes against Latinos and 18.9% of those against Asians in New York City. In contrast, Latinos were responsible for 8.3% of the crimes against Asians and 2.6% of those against blacks. Asians committed no crimes against Latinos or whites, and were responsible for just 0.1% of the crimes against blacks.

Residential segregation has affected Latinos more than Asians. In the 1970s and 80s a substantial increase in the residential segregation of Latinos was detected in urban areas with a lot of Latino immigration and population growth. The segregation of Latinos is highly linked to socioeconomic status, acculturation and suburbanization.

White flight and racially motivated crimes are expressions of xenophobia, of the difficulty certain groups have accepting the gradual integration of other ethnic groups. Could it be an indication of that bifurcated nation that Huntington lists as one of the directions the United States could take? Or of the nation defined solely by ethnicity, which excludes and subordinates any who are not white? Social reaction is an element that must be included in the lobbying programs. But it also represents a political opportunity in the United States, where the Latino presence is changing the electoral composition and opens possibilities of changing repressive policies into legislation favoring integration. These possibilities will be micro-localized for a long time to come, but they are increasingly exploitable and will gradually multiply the possibilities in some states.

Central America in the US: Now post-national

We Central Americans don’t yet amount to much. According to the racial classifications of the latest US census, 34.6 million Afro-Americans (12.3% of the population), 10.2 million Asians (3.6%) and 35.3 million Latinos (12.5%) live in the United States. Central Americans represent a rather paltry 4.8% of the Latino group, although the 1.6 million of us registered in the census doesn’t accurately reflect our real presence.

Large or small in the United States, these volumes of migrants are important for the country of origin. Moving into the 21st century, various US states and cities shelter more Central American citizens than many departments and cities of the isthmus itself. The 368,416 Salvadorans who live in the city of Los Angeles alone represent a greater population than those of the departments of Ahuachapán, Chalatenango, Cuscatlán, La Paz, Cabañas, San Vicente, Usulután, Morazán and La Unión. The 516,859 Salvadorans who live in California as a whole exceed the population in any department of El Salvador, with the exception of San Salvador, La Libertad and Santa Ana. There are more Guatemalans in California (290,827) than in Baja Verapaz or El Progreso. Los Angeles has over twice the number of Guatemalans than live in the famous city of Cobán. The 79,896 Nicaraguans living in Miami significantly exceeds the population of most Nicaraguan cities.

This demographic fact and the economic weight of family remittances and migrants’ investment in tourist visits, communications and local projects, present a challenge to the politicians of the Central American nations. The article “Could the Community ‘Over There ‘Depolarize Politics ‘Over Here’?” (envío, March 2003) demonstrates the capacity of the Salvadoran migrant associations to invest in projects and tip the balance in the municipal elections, an undeniable indication that the Salvadoran community is transcending El Salvador’s territorial limits.

The governments of some countries are inspired by this post-nationalism when designing their lobbying campaigns targeting the US government. Unfortunately, not all Central American governments are equally belligerent and they typically work separately, ignoring their common interests and the potential benefits of joining forces. Central America’s links to the United States make our attitude toward our emigrants a serious issue for US foreign policy. And vice versa: the US state apparatus doesn’t only administer capital and services for millions of foreigners living in its territory; it also applies a foreign policy based around these foreigners that serves its own interests. All these geopolitical features have been poorly exploited and were conspicuously missing from the free trade agreement negotiations. Except in the Salvadoran case, the Central American political elites seem to coincide with Huntington in their ignorance of this post-nationalism—and in their case not even because it suits their purposes.

We’re a market: Jennifer López’s ass

Different points of support for the “Latino menace” that are sensitive for both the native population and the functioning of the US system can be found in the framework of negotiations with the US government. In the first place, Huntington and his followers or promoters need to be reminded that the Latinos living in the United States represent an important consumer market, which has had and continues to have consequences for the status of Latinos, as stressed by academic Frances Negrón-Muntaner: “No one knew it then, but the new Latino cultural scene began in 1995, when singer Selena Quintanilla was killed by Yolanda Saldívar, president of her fan club. Despite the tragic aspect—in the classic sense—of the episode, the explosion of visibility that followed gave many Latinos a new sense of optimism, possibility and self-esteem. The editor of People Magazine, for example, got a taste of that vast appetite for cultural citizenship of more than 30 million Latinos (and their $190 million of purchasing power) when it sold close to a million of the special issue dedicated to Selena in 24 hours. At that moment, the glances of capital and the longing for recognition of the Latinos came together in a long kiss of possibilities, and the current cultural boom ‘exploded’.”

In her expansive and acute article, El trasero de Jennifer López (Jenifer López’s Butt), Negrón-Muntaner explains how the body and especially the very Latino backside of the famous US-Puerto Rican singer-dancer-actor—whom many consider the most beautiful woman on the planet—became emblematic in imposing Latino taste: her Latino-dimensioned buttocks, a sex symbol and presumably a manifestation of a not-at-all Anglo-Protestant diet, entered the canons of US beauty and now help define taste. The market is one of the cultural routes that Latinos will continue making use of. The boycott against Republican Senator James Sensenbrenner through his major stockholding interests in Kimberly Clark, which markets the Little Swimmers, Kleenex, Scott, Huggies, Pull-Ups, Kotex Poise, Viva, Cottonelle and Depend brands, is just one of the important pressure mechanisms and expressions of civic action that Latinos will continue to painstakingly employ.

We’re a labor supply: California’s fruits

There’s also our role as workers: we’re an indispensable labor supply for the United States, even though—and in fact because—it wants to squeeze the lowest price out of us. With respect to the uncontainable migrant stream and the states to which they are attracted, Wallerstein argues that they must fill some function. They are willing to take jobs that local residents refuse to consider, but that are necessary for the economy’s functioning. Moreover, given that the majority of the wealthy countries have falling demographic growth rates (while the percentage of people over 65 years old continues growing), nationals could not benefit from the pensions they currently enjoy if it weren’t for the working-age immigrants who expand the base of contributions that finance them. He adds that in the next 25 years, if the current number of immigrants doesn’t quadruple, there will have to be drastic budget cuts in the public pension system. The New York Times has published data about the significant contribution immigrants have made to the social security system.

Important industries in the United States depend on immigrant labor. In some states that dependence is a historical constant. California’s agrarian potential was immense: rich soil, perfect climate and abundant water for irrigation—much of it piped in from other states whose agrarian possibilities were limited. What it lacked was the labor force needed to harvest apples, melons, oranges, dates, lettuce and much more. First Chinese, then Japanese, then Mexicans and now other Latin American immigrants have come to solve the agricultural labor shortage in California. The Mexicans were the best solution, as it was assumed they would not only work hard for a miserly salary, but would then go back home when they were no longer needed. For that reason there was complete freedom of movement between California and Mexico until 1929, the start of the Great Depression and the year that clandestine migration to US territory was declared a minor crime.

At that time, between 70% and 80% of California’s immigrant workers were Mexicans. According to Eric Schlosser, California is the state that has made the greatest contribution to US agricultural production since the end of the 1940s. Even today, he reports, agriculture continues to be its main industry and it still produces over half of the fruit, dried fruit and vegetables consumed in the United States.

Immigrants feed the country
and subsidize the economy

California’s prosperous agriculture has run into problems, with the real value of its annual production dropping 14% in the past two decades. Between 1982 and 1997, 120,000 hectares of farmland were swallowed up by urban sprawl, which then competes with the crops for water. The solution rests with the migrants. The permanent immigration flow has made it possible to expand the crop areas in certain zones. One of the crops most benefited by the importation of workers is strawberries. In the early 1970s there were 240 hectares of strawberries in the Santa Maria valley, a figure that has since increased six fold. California hasn’t always dominated strawberry production in the United States. In the early 50s it only produced a third of the country’s strawberries; today it produces 80%, generating $840 million a year. The yields per hectare of strawberries can be greater than any other crop—except marijuana.

The technocrats’ utopia—which for others was an apocalyptic prophesy—didn’t come about: not all agricultural processes can be mechanized. Instead, much was Mexicanized, and now Latin Americanized. The labor force is the key to reducing costs and ensuring quality fruits, as Schlosser explains in his book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. Nearly all fruits and vegetables included in the diet of consumers who are minimally concerned about their health, often people with noble ideals, continue being picked by hand. Each lettuce heart, each bunch of grapes, each avocado, peach or plum. And as the demand for these foods climbs, so does the number of workers needed to harvest them. Between 30% and 60% of the emigrants currently living in California—depending on the crop being harvested—are clandestine.

In the apple industry, Schlosser adds, this need has demographic and cultural consequences: these are small towns that are filling with Latinos. In 1960, 18% of the population of Guadalupe was Latino; today the figure is 85%. The response has been white flight and the construction of walls and condominiums that isolate the Caucasians. The problem is that without this labor force and its willingness to work long hours and accept low wages, the majority of California’s farms would disappear. His conclusion is that the clandestine immigrants, generally reviled and often accused of taking advantage of social assistance, are in fact subsidizing the most important sector of the California economy.

Can they do without us?

The immigrants keep increasing and the salaries keep dropping. The hourly wage of some California farm workers, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by over 50% since 1980, according to Schlosser. The undocumented status of so many of those immigrants deprives them of good salaries and other benefits. Schlosser explains that US growers are usually obliged to pay unemployment taxes and accident insurance for their workers, as well as social security and medical insurance contributions. Paying an “invisible worker” in cash reduces labor costs by at least 20% and leapfrogging the California overtime laws reduces those wages by half.

Working conditions are established on a daily basis. If Latinos continue to be absorbed by the US labor market, the main problem is the country’s legal framework and its contradictions with the economic system. Can the United States now do without this labor force? What’s the problem? Things weren’t going so badly when California absorbed the excess Mexican labor force and Mexico assumed its education, health care and retirement. But it was a different story when migrants came to stay and started demanding services from the US welfare state. Even at that, the situation isn’t a drain on the US pocketbook: in fact maintaining the current poverty level of the migrant agricultural workers saves the average US family $50 a year. The problem is that the legal framework is being exploited. The abundance of undocumented workers is a blessing for unscrupulous employers.

Both needed and needy

Something similar happens in the fast food industry. According to Schlosser, in an earlier book called Fast Food Nation, as the number of adolescents declined with the end of the “baby boom,” the fast food chains began to hire other marginal workers: recently arrived immigrants. English is now at best the second language of at least a sixth of all US restaurant employees, nearly a third of this group don’t speak a word of it and many only know the names of the items on the menu. As Schlosser wryly notes, they speak “McDonald’s English.” The weakening of the unions—a drop in members and negotiation capacity—seems to put a solution out of reach: Latinos are needed, but also needy and thus easy prey for exploitation.

This represents an important challenge for lobbying initiatives: it’s not enough to think only of remittances, but also of the remitters and the conditions in which they earn the money they send home. It’s also an opportunity: Latino immigrants are indispensable to the US market and their labor force could use its voice to win other forms of citizenship.

We’re a movement:
Migrants on the offensive

In any period of history, politics is a struggle, a measuring of strength. No group can guarantee that it will continue subjecting the rest of the population for ever and ever with the simple argument that its ancestors founded the country it controls. It’s about who has more weight and knows how to assert their rights.

The unusual reaction of so many immigrants to the legislation that criminalizes migration has demonstrated their capacity to pressure. In little over a month, between March 26 and May 1, nearly five million immigrant workers and US citizens who sympathize with their plight demonstrated in the streets of over a hundred US cities. There were massive protests in Washington, Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Oakland, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Columbus, Wilmington and many other cities. The immigrant workers movement created a new high-water mark , topping the best that the US AFL-CIO labor federation has been able to leave it in its 50 years of existence. Some demonstrations set new historic records. In little over a month, between March 26 and May 1, nearly five million immigrant workers and US citizens who sympathize with their plight demonstrated in the streets of over a hundred US cities.

In Washington, dozens of religious leaders supported by over 1,500 activists and immigrants—including members of the organization Mexicanos Sin Fronteras—held an ecumenical service in front of the Capitol Building as the Judicial Committee was debating the migration bill that would criminalize 12 million undocumented migrants. On March 1, defying the Sensenbrenner bill, religious organizations headed by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, held an interfaith press event in which McCarrick called for the defeat of the Sensenbrenner bill because it would “fundamentally change the heritage of our nation as a welcoming, compassionate, and open society.” He instead called on the government to implement a comprehensive migratory reform that would respect human rights. He also announced that he was instructing the parishes to continue helping people who are not legalized. “Laws can never prohibit us from providing help to good people,” challenged Archbishop McCarrick.

On Saturday, March 25, half a million people marched through the streets of Los Angeles. Among the demonstrators were Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who instructed his diocesans to disobey any law that criminalizes those providing help to undocumented migrants. The Catholic Church thus became a promoter of criminality, as defined in the bill.

From scapegoats to agents of change

“We construct your schools. We cook your food,’’ declared rapper Jorge Ruiz after performing at a Dallas rally that drew 1,500. “We are the motor of this nation, but people don’t see us. Blacks and whites, they had their revolution. They had their Martin Luther King. Now it is time for us.’’ Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich also participated in the protests. “The work of the migrants is what has made Illinois and the United States great,” he said.

The diverse immigrants clubs and associations are bearing fruit. There is a critical mass of Latin Americans in certain neighborhood schools, radio stations and Latin American newspapers that is plotting a network of activities and conciousness-raising.

Some of the demonstrators’ placards read: “We aren’t terrorists, we’re workers” and “I’m not a terrorist, I’m a dishwasher.” There is now a movement that combines class and ethnic group demands: “We want to be legalized to live permanently in this country and we want fair treatment.” Mexicans, Central Americans, Caribbeans, people from India, China, the Philippines and Arab countries, and even some Irish and Italians, marched together, hand in hand. It was evident some years ago that the majority of the Central Americans and Colombians who participated in the Boston janitors’ strike had no prior unionizing experience in their countries of origin and even less experience organizing revolts. These are newly acquired skills and will be an indelible experience for all these men and women. The migrants are metamorphosing from scapegoats into agents of change.

What does this mean for our governments’ attempts to impact US policies? They obviously can’t lobby by threatening revolts by their emigrants, but it is in their interest to negotiate knowing that the migrants are no longer passive and meek and that the persuasive presence of the immigrant rights movement has raised the bar on what can be demanded. Points of agreement need to be sought with numerous and influential groups to break the passive role imposed on migrants. The Central American governments need to keep in contact and foment migrant associations.

What identity are we going to accentuate?

Will these revolts lead to a bifurcated nation? Are they a symptom that we Latinos are irremediably inassimilable? We’re no longer so overwhelmingly Catholic, given that a multitude of Protestant denominations and evangelical sects have invaded our home countries. Nor are we as far removed from US culture as Huntington assumes. We’re not impermeable to transnational influx, tourism, cultural remittances and Hollywood productions. On the other hand, identity can be based on work culture, religion, language, social strata, political position… Which of these features are Latinos, particularly we Central Americans, going to emphasize over time? Those that most distance us or those that make us fit in more with the predominant identities? Or might we seek a pan-Latin Americanist identity? Identities don’t have sharply defined edges to begin with; they are constantly being reshaped and the edges worn down.

The problem, argues Escalante Gozalbo, “is to think of identities as referring—presumably—to fundamental and unmodifiable features that form a lifestyle, a way of being. Deified identities, thought of as a solid thing, with perfectly clear borders, an objective and indisputable existence.” Unlike Huntington, US philosopher John Dewey didn’t treat US identity as a consummated reality. He rather wondered if the American type, assuming that such a thing even exists, has yet adopted a definitive form.

In fact, Dewey found terrible contradictions in the US culture that for Huntington is so monolithic, so seamless and so committed to the founding creed and religion. Dewey argued that Americans cover their materialism and lust for money in idealism and altruism, and charged other contradictions as well: alongside the disappearance of the household and the 600% increase in divorces in only one generation, he wrote in the twenties, we find the glorification of the sacred nature of the home and the marvels of eternal love more widely and more sentimentally than any other time in history.

Neither assimilated nor exophobic

Whether Latin American or gringo, identities inevitably contain contradictions, are hard to define and aren’t etched in stone. US citizens will contribute to the culture of Latin American immigrants and indirectly to that of their families. And the immigrants will in turn contribute to US culture. We Latin Americans must shake off the supposed clash of civilizations and avoid the trap of arguing how superior our culture is, or secretly buying the message that it is inferior. There is and will continue to be a cultural dialogue, but it will be more productive if the immigrants are neither forced into assimilation—or acculturation, as Huntington called it—nor shut up in their ghettoes as an exophobic reaction.

“Exophobia,” according to Lelio Mármora, “isn’t specifically about immigration, but in many cases is a reaction from the immigrants themselves to the context surrounding them. It develops through the prejudice that the minorities feel in relation to the global society into which they are inserted. For closed enclaves of foreigners, this exophobia becomes a mechanism for maintaining the ‘purity’ of their culture, religion or ‘race’.”

Work with the migrants must keep in mind the danger of exophobia, at times incited or fed by the xenophobia of the receiving country’s society. Will our social immersion be competitive or collaborative? The danger of both the US and Latino cultures isolating themselves must be eliminated if there is to be a fertile dialogue between the two. Only by seeking dialogue and cultural vulnerability will the immigrants’ movement be able to improve its political position and discursive production, allowing it to open a debate with Huntington and his followers, as well as with other more friendly interlocutors.

Learning history to dislodge ideological bricks

We need to know US history better, as it is one to which we Latinos have been and sometimes still are a forced party. We must especially learn the history of the different waves of immigrants and their role constructing that immense country in order to unmask the rosy WASP legend and project possible changes as a result of the massive and growing immigration of Latinos. We need to understand the significance that these immigrants have had and could continue having in the history of the United States, a country built on dialogue, debate and at times cultural disputes, but always capable of incorporating other traditions.

The struggle for immigrants’ rights is waged in the streets, in governmental offices, in the houses of Congress and in party platforms, but also in the media, academic debate and many other spheres. That struggle can’t be reduced to a mere sum-up of petitions and signatures. It must extend to the production of a more ambitious effect: a change of conceptions, the redesign of a vision, corrective surgery to a cornea that views “others” with fear and superstitiously venerates the principle of territoriality. In other words, there is a need to dissolve the wall’s very visible and dense ideological bricks.

Those histories that do not jive with the rosy legend of a group of Puritan colonists who came to build a promissory world have to be rescued. Doing so will help eliminate Huntington’s thesis that the recent waves of migrants are radically different from the first migrants who came from England in the 17th century—although in many respects they unquestionably are, because they aren’t appropriating the natives’ possessions or trying to exterminate them.

Rosy legends vs. the real history

The first immigrants, the self-defined pilgrims, cultivated the myth that they were led to the promised land by the hand of God. There’s nothing like divine predestination to justify the colonization of a territory partially occupied by others. Today’s migrants have not attempted to spread such a persuasive myth. The objective of improving one’s living conditions appears banal compared to the sacred mission of founding a new world. Today’s foreigners seem more like coat-tailers seeking to enjoy—and possible destroy—what others worked so hard to build.

Huntington echoes Tocqueville’s rosy legend about that group of pilgrims who established themselves in New England. He argues that it wasn’t need that obliged them to leave their country, given that they left behind a valuable social position and solid means of existence behind. Nor, he insists, did they head off to the New World to improve their situation or increase their wealth. Waxing somewhat melodramatic he claims that these people renounced all that in obedience to a purely intellectual need, exposing themselves to the inevitable rigors of exile, pursuing the triumph of an “idea.” Tocqueville, who visited the United States in the first half of the 19th century, insisted that all immigrants spoke English and came to a territory that the natives were incapable of exploiting since they had been put there as if “awaiting” the arrival of those who would come to build a great nation.

The real history is quite different. For many years the United States and the rest of the Americas provided an opportunity for the agglomerated populations of Europe to flee poverty and oppression, as US historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger recognized in 1921. In The Significance of Immigration in American History, Schlesinger reminds us that the constant migratory flows have played a fruitful and leading role in the most singular events of US history. In a broad sense, the entire history of the United States is, at bottom, the history of successive migratory waves and the adaptation of the new arrivals and their descendents to the new surroundings offered by the Western Hemisphere. The influence of these migratory waves can be traced in the legal systems, customs and institutions of many zones of the United States.

With economic and political motives

The migrants’ motives were quite varied, although now some want to reduce them to the construction of an earthly paradise. Schlesinger recognizes that while religious motivation has been emphasized in the history of colonization, it should not be forgotten that the economic impulse, operating independently or reinforcing the religious conviction, prompted tens of thousands to flee to America. Huntington’s position is nothing new, which is why Schlesinger felt obliged to warn that yesterday’s migrants had the same motives as today’s: to escape political or religious oppression and to improve their living conditions.

The impulse to migrate was laced with mundanity. Big business also profited from and thus actively promoted the migratory flows, and some private companies attempted to control and exploit them for their own benefit. A group of London merchants formed the Moscow Company as early as 1553 to organize the fur trade in Russia, which by 1584, led to the founding of the Artic port town of Arkhangelsk. In 1600 the East Indies Company was formed to exploit trade with the Far East. If those businesses could be lucrative, so could a colonizing enterprise.

On April 10, 1606, two groups of Englishmen representing the London Company and the Plymouth Company obtained official permission to colonize the eastern coast of North America between the 34th and 35th parallels, in other words from the coast of what is now North Carolina to Maine. The first group of British colonists, located in Jamestown, was established on May 13, 1607, by the London Company, a commercial corporation primarily interested in profits for its stockholders based on the colonists’ endeavor.

With coyotes and criminals

William Penn was a Quaker who, after the first settlements in his dominions of Pennsylvania, wasted no opportunity to stimulate immigration artificially because the resulting improved land value implied an increase in his income. Penn publicized his lands throughout Europe, offering enormous extensions at nominal prices and describing the political and religious advantages of living under his rule. He maintained paid agents in the Rhine Valley—they would be called coyotes or traffickers today—whose effectiveness is shown by the fact that within two decades German immigrants represented nearly half of the population.

Another source of “assisted immigration” was the European countries’ custom of emptying their prisons into their colonies. It is estimated that Great Britain sent 50,000 criminals to the 13 colonies. In their defense it must be recognized that the penal code of the day prescribed the death penalty for the theft of nothing more than a chunk of cheap meat. Many of these prisoners were serving sentences for unpaid debts, as was the case with the 1,400 colonists who in 1749 founded Halifax, a city that became the center of the British colonial government and afterward the capital of Nova Scotia, in present-day Canada. Women “of irregular conduct” were also deported to America in the 18th century. Prisons and hospitals such as Salpêtriere in France were the waiting rooms for deportation to America.

Thoroughbred or mixed races?

It is not always understood that even the population of the 13 English colonies was a mix of racial types. In New England the majority of the first inhabitants were in fact English, due to the puritan policy of religious exclusivity. But the other British colonies that gave origin to the United States saw the arrival of a large number of people of diverse racial origins who left their imprint on the native culture and, to a lesser degree, the language. Hence Schlesinger finds it instructive to recall that the “great flow of English puritans did not exceed 20,000, while over 150,000 Scottish and Irish Presbyterians settled in the colonies during the 18th century.” Given that the coastal cities had filled with English settlers, the new groups settled in valleys further inland, where they occupied fertile lands and acted as buffers against the indigenous forays on the old settlements. A group consciousness rapidly developed in response to the organized efforts of the seaboard’s Anglo-American minorities to minimize the influence of the frontier population in the colonial tribunals and legislatures, and they missed no occasion to enforce their interests.

As the rupture with Great Britain was approaching, non-English groups in the rural zones, less inclined to loyalty to the English Crown, were a driving force behind the independence movement. They were decisive in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, where the bonds of loyalty were especially strong. A key contributor to the independence cause was Polish-born Haym Solomon, one of thousands of Jews who lived in the United States. He advanced the Continental Army $700,000, which he never recovered.

Eight of the most prominent men of early New York history weren’t English, but Scottish, German, Prussian, French, Dutch and Swedish. Of the 56 brave men who signed the Declaration of Independence, 18 were not of English origin. In 1779, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, who fought on the side of the Crown, declared before the House of Commons that the patriot army had barely a quarter native-born Americans, a quarter English and Scots, and two quarters Irish.

The flow of migrants was also decisive in the Civil War. Schlesinger estimated that the 84% increase in the foreign population in the decade prior to the war was vitally important to the future of the Union. Germans and Irish provided more troops to the federal armies as a proportion of their total population than the natives.

Thirteen nations in dialogue,
ferocious debates and disputes

The glorifying legend of Anglo-Protestantism has a lot of cracks. The US Declaration of Independence did not found a new and independent nation, but 13 new, independent nations with uncertain borders and a great deal of mutual hostility. The United States is the product of a dialogue, and at times of ferocious debates, in which migrants and the migratory issue played a belligerent role.

The Federalist Party, dominated by aristocratic politicians who were determined to extinguish the heresy known as “democracy,” especially of French origin, bitterly recognized immigration as the promoter of democracy or of “mobocracy,” which is when a majority temporarily introduces new ideas without considering the established norms or rights of the minority (read aristocracy) once the decision-making procedures, discourses and processes have collapsed. According to Isaac Asimov, the American conservatives feared the “foreign agitators” (as has also been the case ever since) and the ultra-Federalists saw in them an opportunity to consolidate its dominion over the country and turn it into an aristocratic republic, a kind of kingless Great Britain. In 1798 they pushed through the Aliens and Sedition Act to prevent aliens from cultivating the dangerous doctrine of democracy in the United Staes.

For the same reason and in the same year the Congress also approved the Naturalization Law, increasing the requirement for naturalization from 5 to 14 years and another law giving the President the right to expel foreigners from the country when they were considered a danger or suspected of treason. Taken together, the laws meant that the President could theoretically expel any foreigner during the 14 years following his or her entry into the United States.

As is obvious, neither Huntington’s arguments nor xenophobic US policies are anyhing new. In 1850, the big corporations recruited migrant workers to the mortification of the natives and non-recent migrants, who complained that the foreigners’ low living standards made it impossible to compete with them. That argument, together with the preponderance of Catholicism among the Irish immigrants, led to an anti-immigration movement that would remain unparalleled in US history until 1920. The same reaction, with identical arguments, is being repeated now: the ragtag, needy, Catholic Latinos, content with minimum wages, are stealing jobs from US citizens and threatening to destroy the order designed and maintained by Protestant values.

Food, languages, music, place names:
The prints of many cultures

Cuisine is one of the indicators of US cultural syncretism: German hamburgers, pizza, omelets, French fries, many dishes from New Orleans, Mexican enchiladas… The same is true of language: in 1643 a Jesuit priest who visited New Amsterdam—which later became New York City—counted 18 languages, and the right to bilingual education is currently gaining ground in many states. So is music: from gospel and blues to hip hop, Afro-Americans have been conspicuous contributors to the musical wealth of the United States.

Toponymies, too, offer clues to multi-racial tracks through the United States. New Jersey was named for the English island of Jersey. French domination left Louisiana, Mobile, Natchez, New Orleans, Vincennes and Port Royal. Staten Island was named that for the General States, the legislature of the Low Countries. The Bronx was named after Danish immigrant Jonas Bronck, Rensselaer after diamond merchant Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, and Yonkers after a Dutch colonist with the title of jonker, equivalent to the Prussian bunker. Florida, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco are only a few of the many vestiges of Spanish colonization. Massachusetts, although thus baptized by a British cartographer in 1614, is an indigenous expression meaning “close to the big hill.” There are also many other indigenous names: Mississippi (big river), Connecticut (next to the long river where the tides penetrate), Manhattan, named for the tribe inhabiting the island when the Dutch arrived, and many, many more.

We have to engage in the ideological battles emphasizing that there’s no cultural clash. Schlesinger’s words in 1921 remain valid: “Whatever of history may be made in the future in these parts of the country will not be the result primarily of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ heritage but will be the product of the interaction of these more recent racial elements upon each other and their joint reaction to the American scene.”

A thin red line

Huntington achieved celebrity status as a result of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, which interpreted the international conflicts in terms of the confrontation between the Eastern-Muslim and Western-Christian cosmovisions. The bipolar USA-USSR axis, articulated over two political macro-projects, was replaced by a religious bipolar axis.

The weakness of Huntington’s interpretive key has been underscored by various authors through two elemental observations: Easterners aren’t so extremely different from Westerners—the globalizing processes aren’t for nothing—nor are they sufficiently similar among themselves to present a bloc with a single, compact posture toward Western civilization. Huntington encourages an intolerance based on selective identity-building. Escalante Gozalbo explains the truculent and dangerous nature of this manipulation: “A set of cultural features is chosen, those of a historic moment or those that nostalgia imagines, which serves the same purpose, and an absolute value is conferred on them to define the ‘true identity’ of whatever group it is. With that one has a transcendental and unarguable justification for political power. The vagueness of culture as an individual right acquires a rigid form, borders, enemies.”

So Huntington pays no attention to East-West conver-gences or divergences within the East. In Who are we? he again embarks on a homogenizing fallacy, continuing to select certain features and exclude others to demarcate borders between what is authentically US and what is spurious. But there’s a danger in this business of tracing borders: the thin red line between the glorification of WASPness and racism, between reifying one cultural identity—presented as objective and immutable—and believing in biologically demonstrable racial identities. It could be a thin red line tinted with blood. While some go out into the street to beat up on migrants; others stay home inventing myths about identities.

Jackson’s nose, the Hiltons’
wealth and López’s butt

This thin line imagines more bipolarity between the segments and more homogeneities within them than really exist. Even between those US citizens who best fit the WASP mold there is a heterogeneity that has benefited and will continue benefiting Latino immigrants. Lobbying also has to appeal to and try to rescue that heterogeneity, visible even among those most deeply rooted in Anglo-Protestantism. There is no true, unique US identity, whose limits could coincide with the political borders of the United States, as Huntington would love to believe.

What is the essence of an “American”: the Jeffersonian model or the Hamiltonian one? Who more approximates the US prototype: George W. Bush or Michael Moore? In the past the ideas and actions of Monroe, Rockefeller or Commodore Vanderbilt provided the most recognizable face of the United States in Latin America. Nowadays, Michael Jackson’s multi-metamorphosed nose, the glorification of the Hilton sisters’ wealth and Jennifer López’s backside provide more decisive and fluent expressions of US cultural coordinates than any mythology produced by a Harvard professor.

Michael Jackson’s nose is the living metaphor and caricature of assimilation to the WASP image; a monstrosity that is at the same time the height of assimilation. The veneration of the Hiltons is the concretizing of the cult to money not produced by talent, an ideology that John Dewey saw as vigorous but pretentious even in the twenties because in place of developing those prophesied individualities, what you get is a perversion of the whole idea of individualism to adjust it to the customs of a culture of money. There is nothing more opposed to Presbyterian morality and the “self-made man” (or woman) than Paris Hilton, yet few are as idolized as she. Then there’s Jennifer López, whose ample Latino buttocks gyrated their way into the most lucrative cultural market in the world.

The message is tidy: if they sell, if they buy, Latino asses will be welcomed rather than kicked. And take note: even when not for profit, Latinos have notable successes to their credit in carving out a niche for themselves in US culture at all levels. One of the most grassroots illustrations of this are the murals by Central Americans in San Francisco, California.

Between Rockefeller and Walt Whitman

A couple of decades ago, a group of social scientists headed up by Robert N. Bellah conducted a very detailed and rigorous investigation of the culture, values and features of US identity. Bellah and his group asked what beliefs and practices shape the character and social order of people from the United States. The result of the investigation was the book Habits of the Heart.

Among other features, these researchers found two that stand out and have a certain degree of opposition: utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism. The first emphasizes the individual effort to accumulate material wealth and sacrifice everything for professional or business success. Expressive individualism is embodied in the immediate enjoyment of life, a life full of experiences, open to all kinds of people, as exuberant in the sensual aspect as in the intellectual one; a life with strong sentiments. An “I” identified with other people and places, with nature and, in the final analysis, with the universe.

The table below is an attempt to represent these identity-generating components in a graphic way, classifying emblematic figures of US culture according to their either weak or strong manifestations of utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism. Obviously the shaded area of the diagram, where both types of individualism are only weakly present, would not apply to any emblematic member of this culture.

The poet Walt Whitman, utterly devoted to nature and a life full of experiences, is the most extreme example of expressive individualism. John D. Rockefeller, given his dedication to the pursuit of wealth, is perhaps the best embodiment of utilitarian individualism in US history. Then there’s Walt Disney, who perhaps wanted to combine both traditions, and certainly did. Who could say that each of them doesn’t exemplify US identity? Perhaps today we could speak of certain ecologists as exponents of expressive individualism in their commitment to turn the “I” green again, while Donald Trump would be the caricature of today’s crass craving for wealth. And Madonna—the most profitable exponent of express yourself—is today’s hybrid.

In this exercise I’ve only combined two variables. We could include more to obtain an enormously complex and varied matrix: John Winthrop’s utopian Puritanism, Thomas Jefferson’s egalitarian republicanism, Benjamin Franklin’s faith in progress promoted by individual initiative, Emerson’s and Hawthorne’s profound cultivation of self, Thoreau’s civil disobedience, etc. No one could have all the features, because it’s not a question of creating a cultural Frankenstein, but rather about keeping cultural dialogue alive.

Can we Latinos contribute to that dialogue? Bellah advocates cultural dialogues that keep the traditions alive: As long as it lives, he argues, a people’s cultural tradition—its symbols, ideals and ways of feeling—always constitutes a debate about the meaning of common destiny. Cultures are dramatic dialogues about issues that are important to the participants and the US culture is no exception. The American culture remains alive as long as the dialogue continues and the debate is passionate.

More spices in the melting pot

Why not introduce new and multicolored interlocutors to spice up the dialogue? The United States was bathed by a migrant river of millions of Italian anarchists and Irish poor, yet Huntington thinks that they didn’t constitute a threat to Protestant values because it was possible to assimilate them. Are Latinos so much more difficult to assimilate? Are they so resistant to assimilation? The more differences there are, the more energetic the dialogue. As Wallerstein said, all countries are characterized by their diversity, which is a virtue, not a defect. A few more spices in the stew will give things more flavor.

The demonstrations against the Sensenbrenner Law showed that many documented citizens are in solidarity, and were probably even weaned on the traditions of expressive individualism, utopian Puritanism, egalitarian republicanism, the profound cult of self and civil disobedience. Let’s talk, and make an alliance with the gringos’ expressive side. Let’s add more flavor to the melting pot. Let’s conspire with Walt Whitman and his followers and celebrate ourselves.

José Luis Rocha is a rearcher at the Central American University and a member of the envío Editorial Council.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Herty Lewites: Now a “Spiritual Candidate”


Has a Neoliberal Democracy Been Institutionalized in Nicaragua?

The Words of Women from “Nicaragua’s Navel”

Drugs and AIDS: Surely Now It’s Time for a National Alert

An Exodus, a Train, An Unreachable Horizon

The Ideological Bricks of the Anti-Immigrant Wall
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America