In March of this year, once the sun began to shine again and warm the earth, a neighbor with whom I chat—in the way you chat with those with whom you share a fence—told me he’d been sleeping very well since the elections. He didn’t need to say much else, and I didn’t really press him on the matter. Near the end of July, our paths crossed again and he confessed that he thought he’d made a mistake. He said that, if the current administration’s hard line on immigration continued, it would have devastating effects on the economy. He was speaking specifically about “Mexicans.” In January, he’d started a new job which is similar to his old one, but now he’s in touch with a different sector of the economy—food service. These daily encounters with Latinx workers from across the city showed him how much a part of our local economy they are.
On September 17, 1968—forty-nine years ago to the day that I am sitting down to write this— Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Hispanic Heritage Week bill into law. Twenty years later, in August 1988, Ronald Reagan signed National Hispanic Heritage Month into law. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois sponsored the 1988 bill. This bill, however, was a version of a House Resolution proposed by Representative Esteban Torres from California—a bill that died in committee. Torres, one of the nation’s pioneering Hispanic legislators, was born in Arizona in 1930 but grew up fatherless in California during the Roosevelt and Truman years. His own father had been caught up in the “Mexican repatriation” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/americas-brutal-forgotten-history-of-illegal-deportations/517971/) purges of the 1930s—a series of dragnet-type raids that forcibly removed undocumented Mexicans and returned them south of the border. Countless Chicano families throughout the Southwest were torn apart because of these xenophobic measures. And, while a good number of those sent to Mexico were undocumented, at least 60 percent were American citizens. Indeed, they had been American citizens ever since the border switched on them following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.
This is to say, immigration isn’t the only reason Latinxs find themselves within the borders of the United States. And, though immigration is the current topic, I think it’s important to remember that a considerable number of this nation’s Latinx citizens—the Chicanos and Hispanics of the Southwest and the Puerto Ricans currently trying to rebuild their island—are American citizens, not because they chose to come to the United States but because the United States took over their territories. It’s important because remembering this complicates White notions of American history and White notions of who gets to be counted as American by birthright—in ways that should unsettle White xenophobia. Latinxs, after all, are not strangers to this country, but fellow citizens born and raised here.
With the advent of World War II and the labor shortage caused by men going off to war, the US government and American industry turned to Mexico for labor and the Bracero Program was born in the early 1940s and lasted until the early 1960s. The 1950s saw both an extension of the program and deportations. Throughout the Bracero Program, which sought legal means to provide work visas for Mexicans to fill in needed jobs, American agro-industry still found ways to smuggle in undocumented workers. This led to a strengthening of border controls in the ’40s and ’50s and to the forced removals of Operation Wetback, which began in 1954.
This is to say, when it comes to Latinx immigration, we bless and we curse, we bar and we entice, we turn a blind eye and we punish with a vengeance, to make up for our own inconsistencies.
Economic instability, though, isn’t the only reason people from Central America and Mexico, South America and the Caribbean come to the United States. Another major motivator is political instability. With some immigrants, Cubans, for example, American law has historically made it easy for them to get their footing and be here legally, regardless of how they arrive. For others, including Guatemalans, El Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans, entrance into the United States as legal citizens has been much more difficult. Yet, the political instability of Guatemala is intimately connected to American military intervention in 1954 and the decades-long civil war that ensued. Likewise, the political instabilities of Nicaragua and El Salvador can be traced to the US military interventions, dictators, and civil wars in which the United States backed one of the warring sides. This much-too-brief overview, of course, does not get into the minutia. Blame cannot all be laid on the United States. With local corruption and an oligarchy that cares more about its own wealth and power than the well-being of the nation and its citizens, and with gangs and crime syndicates, there are many non-US factors at play that lead to political unrest and the crime that forces caring parents to come north.
Though I said earlier that labor isn’t the only motivating factor causing immigrants to leave their country, work and stability and a better life due to better pay is why people come and stay. American industry, in turn, has been more than willing to accommodate this new source of labor. And, truth be told, when the border more porous and less protected, migrant workers were more prone to return home rather than set down roots.
In 2007 the Peruvian-American journalist Paul Cuadros wrote a book called A Home on the Field: How One Championship Soccer Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America. Cuadros, realizing that Latinxs were moving to chicken-processing plants in the South, moved to Siler City, NC, to research his story. Along the way, he became a soccer coach and led the high school team to the state championship—a good American sports story that he deftly narrates. Early on in the book, he tells of visiting an anti-immigrant rally led by David Duke in downtown Siler City that took aim at the Latinx workers and the poultry industry. After the rally, Duke went with a group of his followers to the local Golden Corral and feasted on fried chicken.
I didn’t have to see anymore. Duke had said it all with what he put on his plate. He had said it all for everyone in America who views the migration of Latinos the way he does. They didn’t want the workers or their families living in their towns but they sure wanted their chicken. And that was all that mattered. America spoke with its stomach and wanted its tomatoes picked, its cucumbers gathered, its oranges harvested, its blueberries busheled, its hamburger ground, its pork processed, its Thanksgiving Day turkeys slaughtered, its Christmas trees cut, and its chicken butchered, and it didn’t care how that was done as long as the people who brought its food were kept invisible and cheap. (55‒56)
While my neighbor only recently might’ve begun to pay attention to the Latinx population in the Bluegrass—it is after all, a rather recent phenomenon here—Latinx immigration to the United States is not. And, while much harvesting and slaughtering seems to be low-skill, it turns out that it’s not. This was a lesson learned by the state of Georgia in the wake of its anti-immigration law, HB 87 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/05/17/the-law-of-unintended-consequences-georgias-immigration-law-backfires/#56132935492a).
I don’t bring up my neighbor just as an example of all the people who don’t see Latinx contributions. I bring him up because of his realization that the Latinx community is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary American labor. I bring him up also because of his change of heart. There is in his change hope, I hope.
In 2005 Héctor Tobar, the son of Guatemalan immigrants and a Pulitzer Prize‒winning Los Angeles Times reporter, published Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States. The book covers the breadth of Latinx presence in the United States, from the Southwest to the Southeast, from Miami to the slaughterhouses of Kansas, from Idaho to Texas and from various Latin American countries. Tobar’s book is a comedy. It strikes a hopeful note as it looks at how the United States of America is changing, becoming browner—but not losing its identity because of this browning. In fact, he organizes the book as a conversation with grand American myths—Pilgrims and Pioneers, E Pluribus Unum, to name two of the overarching themes. He shows how the aspirations of Central Americans and Mexicans and Cubans and Dominicans are the aspirations that all Americans have had. It’s impossible to read Translation Nation and not come away with the realization that the Latinx presence in the United States is multifaceted, complicated, diverse, and ultimately enriching.
Both Cuadros’s story and Tobar’s interwoven essays are comedies. They note the hardships and struggles. They record the racism and xenophobia. They also highlight positive contributions and note how lives are changed and communities strengthened. There are ways in which it seems that twelve years ago it might’ve been easier to write the immigrant story as comedy. Yet Tobar’s book was conceived, researched, and written in the wake of California’s Proposition 187, legislation designed to prevent certain immigrants from receiving non-emergency healthcare, public education, and other services. And, not long after Translation Nation was published, there were large national protests against H.R. 4437, also known as the “Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.”
It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month. The Latinx community is large, wide, and varied. Some are Afro-Latin, some are Native American-Latin, some are Jewish-Latin. Some are here because the border moved on them. Some because they chose to come. Some are here, not because they chose to come, but because their parents came. The Latinx community is documented and undocumented. And they have as many stories to tell as there are countries and people. I challenge you to pick up something written by a Latinx author.
If you like poetry, check out the Dominican-American poet and novelist Julia Álvarez, or the Californian Juan Felipe Herrera who served as poet laureate from 2015‒2017, or the New Mexican Jimmy Santiago Baca of Apache and Chicano origins, or the Nuyorican Martín Espada, or Lexington’s own Ada Limón—we will forgive her her California birth.
If fiction is what you read, explore the work of Rudolfo Anaya, one of the founders of the Chicano canon, or Sandra Cisneros, who will color in the Chicago Mexican story, or Luís Alberto Urrea, who was born on the border, or Francisco Goldman, of Guatemalan Jewish descent.
You’ll be surprised by the varied nature of their writing and their lives. And you’ll understand these United States a little better.