Sunday, June 19, 2011

"We Are All Mexicans"

     Now that President Obama has finally decided to stop deporting young people brought here illegally by their parents, we need to pitch in and encourage some attitude adjustment among our countrymen.
    Just as the world's response to 9/11 was a heartfelt, "We are all Americans," so should we regard Mexicans with empathy and tolerance. 
    We are all Mexicans. At some point in each of our family histories, someone immigrated to the U.S. for a better life. They were willing to work hard and to endure harsh discrimination for a chance to blend into America's "melting pot."
    No immigrant group has exemplified the dignity of this process more than the Mexican people who enter our country every day with passion, determination, warmth and hope.

    Whenever an article in the local newspaper refers to Mexicans or immigrants, a torrent of hateful comments is posted on the paper's web site. 
    I am shocked every time it happens. These diatribes are so bigoted, so venomous, so vicious, that sometimes even a real First Amendment defender is tempted to advocate censorship.

    I don't, for two reasons. First, I think the rest of us need to be aware of the intense racism in our midst and to be mindful of it. Second, I hope the comments provide a sort of safety valve, so these unfortunate bigots can vent their feelings and perhaps be less likely to act upon them.
     Is it possible that you are prejudiced against Mexicans? Once upon a time -- long, long ago -- I was.
     When my family and I moved to Salt Lake City in the early 1950s, we stayed in a crappy little motel on State Street until we found a house. Every day, we were obliged to walk up and down the busy street while the housekeeper cleaned the room.
   The motel's proprietress warned us not to leave any items of value in there, because "these dirty Mexicans will steal anything that isn't nailed down."
   I was barely five years old, but the phrase "dirty Mexican" -- and the contemptuous tone that was used -- so affected me, that for the next 50 years, I never uttered the word "Mexican," referring instead to "Hispanics," "Latinos," and "Chicanos," which to me had a respectful tone.  I simply couldn't say "Mexican" without fearing that it sounded derogatory.  
   We finally left the motel and moved to a modest east-side neighborhood, and to a nicer one 10 years later -- and I don't recall seeing a Mexican person ever again throughout my youth. All whiteness all the time. Pretty creepy. 
   It wasn't until just a few years ago, when I read one of  Gustavo Arellano's excellent "Ask a Mexican" syndicated columns, that I felt free (in fact, I felt compelled) to use the word I had regarded for so long as taboo. He scolded white people for steering clear of the word "Mexican" -- I was quite surprised to learn that others must feel as I did  -- and he declared that it was insensitive of us not to acknowledge the pride that Mexicans legitimately feel for their country and heritage. So now I call Mexicans "Mexicans" (actually, I prefer to say "Mexican people"), and I say it with empathy and admiration. 
    I am more outgoing toward minorities than I am toward white people, because I don't like the way they are so often either scrutinized suspiciously or treated as if they were invisible.
    The way in which they respond to this warmth reminds me of the times I vacationed in Mexico when I was younger, and it was very moving to see what Mexican people are like when they feel accepted and "at home." They moved with confidence and grace -- bantering and flirting -- their heads held high. 
    I have felt that when Mexican people come here, many of them sort of shrink back, hanging their heads, averting their eyes -- and of course, we did that to them with our wariness, our hostility and our pushing them into jobs that are too demanding and demeaning for us. 
    They are understandably trying to be inconspicuous, and to us it makes them look "furtive" and "guilty of something." It is a very unfortunate dynamic. We are doing damage to a lovely people, just as our racism has damaged others throughout our history.
     So if you think they seem to be sort of slinking around, try adopting a truly welcoming attitude and see what happens. I predict that you will be charmed.

      When I was in my first year of college, the noted folk singer Bruce "Utah" Phillips -- a wonderful humanitarian who died several years ago -- asked me if I would be willing to spend a Saturday with him. I was a writer for the student newspaper, and he had a story idea for me: the desperate, cruel plight of Utah's migrant labor force.
    We drove to Tremonton and visited several encampments. The tiny, windowless, weatherbeaten shacks the workers had to live in shocked me. The only amenity was one wiry box spring in each unit, which had to accommodate an entire family. It was already blazing hot in there, and it was just mid-morning. 
    Outside, the migrants had created cooking areas by stacking rocks in a circle. Bruce told me that farm workers were excluded from the federal minimum wage law, and they were completely at the mercy of the landowners. They had to pay a fee for their housing, and they bought basic necessities from an on-site commissary, so at the end of the month, they were barely able to afford enough gas to get to the next crop.
     It was like the 1890s, when slavery evolved into sharecropping, and the black people remained forever in debt to the white guy, who docked their pay for every pathetic "amenity" he provided. I was repulsed and enraged at this injustice.
   We went out into the field, where entire families were bent over in the scorching sun. "They work from first light until it's dark," Bruce said. They toiled quietly, expertly and with urgency -- they were paid by volume, not by the hour
     Even when they were out there working in the dirt all day, they were not dirty Mexicans. They were beautiful Mexicans, heroic Mexicans, humble, warm and hospitable Mexicans, who earnestly invited us to share their lunch of beans and tortillas. 
   Some migrants didn't even have shacks -- they slept in their cars or under trees. We found one family in a boxcar. 
    Decades later, I rented the old film "Harvest of Shame," in which Edward R. Murrow documented the disgraceful and humiliating conditions that migrant workers had endured in the South. Things had looked surprisingly similar when Bruce and I visited the Utah camps, and I am told that now, all these years later, it's pretty much the same situation, except that there are portable toilets in the fields -- and that's for our benefit, not theirs, to prevent E. coli contamination of the produce.  
    Few migrants return home, after nine months of back-breaking labor, with any savings whatsoever.
    The immigration issue obviously has no easy answers. But as we muddle our way through it, we need to keep one thing at the forefront of our minds: These are good people.
   (Of course I know that there are Mexicans who commit crimes! The local news would have us believe that if only they'd all leave, nothing bad would ever happen here. But these people are representative of our Mexican population  in the same way that teachers who molest students are representative of teachers. They are NOT representative.) 
    In recent years, my family has come to know a number of Mexican families. Frankly, we don't know if they are here legally or not. What we do know is that they work harder than most of us can imagine and get paid less than any of us would tolerate. 
    Besides being vital to our agricultural sector, they are the ones in office buildings and medical facilities, scrubbing toilets and dumping trash, emptying bedpans and washing the laundry. 
    They are digging the ditches, keeping our landscapes expertly maintained, busting their asses doing tough construction and roofing work at bargain rates, and taking gentle care of the oldest and youngest among us. 
    (They were the true heart and soul of the nursing home in which my relatives have been patients. They were competent, tender-hearted -- and ridiculously overworked.)  
    In so many respects, they are "behind the scenes," in noisy factories and industrial sites, or doing the exhausting, mind-numbing and often dangerous work that we prefer -- for a variety of reasons -- not to see (slaughtering and butchering our meat, for example).
   They have great families and great kids, and their culture has enriched ours.
    To say that they are freeloaders is patently absurd. There is probably no other single group in this country that as a whole is more determined to work, and I mean WORK for their pay. They aren't exploiting us. We are exploiting them. That is the aspect of immigration reform that I would most like to see addressed, although we obviously should control our borders. No more "under the table" or "off the books" compensation. These people, who are so full of hopes and dreams, deserve decent wages and decent lives.
    And to suggest that they have to join the military or go to college in order to become citizens-- which was recently proposed -- is outrageous. If the same criteria were used on Americans in general, we'd promptly lose more than half our citizenry. Not everyone wants or needs to go to college. And if they are required to become soldiers to prove they are deserving of citizenship, then we should all face the draft. 
    Even when my beautiful plumber Mario is up to his neck in a muddy trench, he is a clean Mexican, as far as I am concerned. Clean, honorable, and worthy of the best things this country has to offer.
     A new full-service grocery store opened recently in our neighborhood that is owned and staffed by Mexicans. It provides a great antidote to negative stereotypes.
   The Rancho Market is delightful in its selection of produce, baked goods, hot meals and general grocery items that are exotic to those of us who aren't from Mexico. The prickly cactus leaves, huge Mexican papayas, colorful peppers, casava root, fresh garbanzos in their pale green skins, dried hibiscus blossoms and innumerable other interesting items are neatly displayed among the typical American fare.
    But it is the people who work at Rancho who are the most "delicious" aspect. They are proud, neatly dressed, good-natured and professional as they conscientiously go about their duties. It is so refreshing to see Mexican people in charge, and to witness the energy and charm of their employees as they make this business function so well every day. They are bright, beautiful young people whom I would be honored to call "fellow Americans."