Latino History Month #2

It’s time for your weekly “Hispanic Heritage Month” history lesson, something with a little more significance and less sponsorship than this.  Plus, you get for free what hundreds of students have to pay a high-priced college for, and I don’t even jack with your transcript when we’re done!

With the debate over Mexican immigration raging, 2010 is a time like no other in our history…or is it?  I wish.  History is a wheel of reoccurrence, a condition which is frustrating for noble-minded historians like myself, but a condition that is so nonetheless.  Among the many instances where this “debate” reared its racially-marked head in the past was the decade of the 1920s.

Back then, a swarm of xenophobes had manged to legislate the most restrictive immigration system in US history, framed by racial quotas which remained the “law of the land” until 1965.  These quotas made it easier for you to immigrate to the US if you were “white” and Northern European than if you were “swarthy” and Southern and Eastern European.  While support was diverse, both in constituency and the interests they sought to protect, a widespread base of support came from those whose goal was to limit the attack on “pure Americanism” which resulted from the infusion of so many not-quite-whites into the US.

Where were Mexicans in this formula?  Well, thanks to the political leverage of agribusiness, among other factors, they were left out of the quota system.  This didn’t sit well with the xenophobes who saw their presence as seasonal pickers in the Southwest as just as much a threat as the Jews or Italians in the East, if not more so.

The result was a regular attempt by some elites to extend the quota to Latin America and an accompanying attempt by other elites to stop them.

That’s the quick and dirty shaping the larger context of this piece, an op-ed written in 1928 and published in the LA Times (Feb. 18, 1928).  Penned by a representative of the agricultural industry, it is titled “Hands Off!” and reads, in part:

Putting up immigration bars at the border to keep Mexicans willing to perform manual labor from securing employment on the ranches and in the orchards of this country is a proposal that would bring injury to many and benefit to none. The Mexicans are good workers, the best as a class we have ever had in the Southwest. Under the present permit system, they come in when they are needed, and go back when their work has been done.

They are not wastrels, are not troublemakers. They create no race problems. They are neither political disturbers nor social menaces.

We of the Southwest know the Mexicans. They are god citizens. Many now living in Los Angeles recall when more than 70 per cent of the population was Mexican born or Mexican descent. Many of our most useful citizens are descendants of the second of third generation of the Mexicans who lived here before California was an American State. There are more than 100,000 persons of Mexican birth or descent now living in Los Angeles. Most of them are American citizens, and good ones.

California’s representatives in Congress asked for the exclusion of the Chinese and Japanese, but they have not and are not asking for the exclusion of the Mexicans. Agricultural, commercial and industrial organizations throughout the State are practically unanimous in their protest against restricting Mexican immigration to the 3 per cent quota…

…Relations between the United States and Mexico are cordial. The good will shown by the last two administrations has aided very materially in the restoration of peace and the promotion of good will in Mexico. Restriction of Mexican immigration would be regarded south of the Rio Grande as inhospitable, as unfriendly, as a reflection on the Mexican people which the Latin blood would be certain to resent

There have been no disturbances, no clashes between class and class, no general protests from California communities against the presence of Mexican laborers in any part of the South or West. Where the Mexican are employed they are welcome. They take part in cultivating and picking the cotton in California, Arizona and Texas. They pick the peaches, oranges, lemons and apricots and prepare them for shipment. They cultivate the beet fields of California, Utah and Colorado.

They are as necessary to our ranches and orchards as are the farm laborers at harvest time in the Middle West. A law prohibiting the movement of farm laborers from one State to another in the season of the wheat harvest would be about as reasonable as one preventing Mexican laborers from coming at seasonable times into the West and Southwest. These Mexicans are accustomed to life in a semitropical climate. They are children of the sun, and they perform a service for which those born in colder climates are neither suited no inclined…

If you’d like to think as a Latina/o historian, then you might want to consider the following questions to begin:

  • What are some of the reasons the author gives for not including Mexican workers under the quota system?
  • What can we infer from this argument regarding the opposition? That is, what does this tell us about how the “other side” is arguing?
  • How do ideas about racial fitness continue to frame the position here? What are those ideas? How do they benefit the argument?
  • How are Mexicans “naturalized” as part of the agricultural production process?

This position was a common one in this era, as it is today.  You might think about the ways this argument resonates with some of the ideas and positions you hear in our current public debate.

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Erik Estrada is more popular than pot

About a year and a half ago, we here at the central office were amazed to see the blog traffic at Latino Like Me start to reach new peaks, at times even exceeding 1000 a day.  When we checked the data from the Chicano super-computer we have working out back, it turned out the bulk of that traffic was coming from people searching for terms like “marijuana” and “marijuana joint” and “pot.”

This kept up for sometime, easily contributing an extra hundred or so visitors a day after the highest peaks.  Two posts, which were inadvertently optimized, drove the surge.  This was reflected in the data, as this post on Michael Phelps and corn flakes and this one on “420” rose to the top of LLM’s “all-time” list.

As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t mind this discovery but I did find it a bit disheartening that the many posts I spent a lot of thoughtful energy and compassion composing—posts about immigration, hate crimes, and racial equity—got eclipsed by little posts I wrote on the fly for fun.

In the past month, however, I seem to have fallen out of favor with the pot smokers of the interwebs.  Lately it’s not unheard of for LLM to get zero hits from pot-related searches.  As these have gone down, a new “king” has emerged.  It doesn’t drive quite the same traffic in terms of numbers, but the daily share it provides is consistent.

That’s right: Erik Estrada now drives the bulk my blog hits.

I feel like a young boy whose wildest dreams have come true.

Monday Blues

B.B. King (1925-), Albert Collins (1932-1993), Buddy Guy (1936-), Eric Clapton (1945-), and Jeff Beck (1944-), performing King’s “Sweet Little Angel” at the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame TV special, 1993.

Latino History Month #1

They say those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it. I say, those who do not know their past have no future. For what are we if not the bearers of the collective memories and struggles of our ancestors?

In service of “Hispanic Heritage Month” (which I fear means little more than a few PBS specials and an enchildada dinner at the White House) I offer you a free Chicano/Latino history lesson every Wednesday for the next month.

This week, we go into the past to explore a moment in our collective history when youth radicalism seemed to be sweeping barrios from East LA to East Harlem.

Known as a Chicano nationalist organization with a militant leaning, the Brown Berets began in 1966 as a Church-fostered youth group called Young Chicanos for Community Action (YCCA). Sustained police harassment and an emerging exchange of “radical” ideologies and organizational examples reshaped them by the late 60s into the Brown Berets.

Their ten-point platform might be both easy to celebrate or deride, depending on your political sensibilities. As historians of our collective past, however, it is a significant statement of self-determination and youth idealism, shaped by a particular moment and place. We might wonder what experiences framed this utopian vision as “truth” for the young men and women involved?

Brown Berets, “Ten Point Program,” 1968. Reprinted in “Brown Berets: Serve, Observe, and Protect,” La Raza (newspaper), June 7, 1968, 13.

  1. Unity of all of our people, regardless of age, income, or political philosophy.
  2. The right to bilingual education as guaranteed under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
  3. We demand a Civilian Police Review Board, made up of people who live in our community, to screen all police officers, before they are assigned to our communities.
  4. We demand that the true history of the Mexican American be taught in all schools in the five Southwestern States.
  5. We demand that all officers in Mexican-American communities must live in the community and speak Spanish.
  6. We want an end to “Urban Renewal Programs” that replace our barrios with high rent homes for middle-class people.
  7. We demand a guaranteed annual income of $8,000 for all Mexican-American families.
  8. We demand that the right to vote be extended to all of our people regardless of the ability to speak the English language.
  9. We demand that all Mexican Americans be tried by juries consisting of only Mexican Americans.
  10. We demand the right to keep and bear arms to defend our communities against racist police, as guaranteed under the Second Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Like many other nationalist organizations, the Brown Berets’ history was marked by deep conflicts over sexism, as well as debates over the meaning of being “Chicano.” This is the story that flows from the above document, one best encompassed by questions like: How did this platform reflect the needs and interests of their membership and the larger community of which they were a part? How did it not? How did they go about trying to implement their vision?

If you are interested in pursuing just some of the above questions, feel free to do some further reading. A nice overview of the rise of the Berets can be found in Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, by Ian F. Haney-López. A superb collection of feminist writings from this era, ones that often express the tension between nationalism and feminism, is Alma Garcia’s Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings.

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Is Boardwalk Empire destined to be great?

My friend Steven Rubio offered an interesting couple of blog posts on the premiere of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. You can read his first review of Sunday’s episode here, and his addendum to that post here.

What interests me most about what he wrote (so much so that I’m writing this post instead of a wordy comment on his own blog) is contained in the intro to his addendum:

There is no denying the impressive potential of Boardwalk Empire, but the way it is being trumpeted as the bellwether of HBO’s return to greatness has a tinge of sexism to it. The idea is that since the end of The Sopranos, HBO hasn’t been the same, but that Empire is just the thing to take the network back to the top.

He elaborates briefly (if you need it) by explaining the undertone of this hype is that the post-Sopranos offerings from HBO weren’t manly enough to rival the earlier phenomenon. I don’t disagree with hi analysis, but I was thinking about it differently.

I will admit, I’m in the “hype camp.” While I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire *is* the greatest show on TV after one episode, it remains in the running. More than anything else, that fact alone, placed within the larger context surrounding the hype, means it is competing in a contest where it is the sole contender.

Let me explain.

I think The Sopranos was, for HBO, the first time it seemed “pertinent” at all levels of popular culture. The Sopranos was simultaneously loved by mainstream critics and awards shows, the watercooler public, and the elite cultural analysts. It’s rare thing, historically speaking, to be widely considered the “best” show on TV as well as be the cultural phenom everyone is talking about. Right now, that post is vacant. However critically well-received shows like Mad Men are, they don’t rise to the phenomenal level of The Sopranos. Heck, more people are certainly watching and talking about Glee and a short list of other bubble-gum-for-the-brain shows ahead of Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined.

Some of the hype surrounding Boardwalk was unavoidable when you consider the last time a show held the position I describe above was probably The Sopranos. The void of a reigning champ and the recent history of HBO as the title’s home further fan the flames. Now add to that the similarity to Sopranos and the talent behind Boardwalk Empire and you get a better picture of why so much attention is being paid to it.

In many ways, at this, the first evaluative stage, the contender status is Boardwalk Empire’s to lose. Once it showed it can compete–and I think yesterday’s premiere established that–it has a much harder road of having to prove itself on its own merits. But that road is also made easier with the kind of hype the show carries.

Steven and Robert Lloyd (of the LA Times) have a lot of similar things to say about the show, with Lloyd having the advantage over us in that he has already seen six episodes. In his review he wrote:

It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread but rather a well-made sort of sliced bread, a thing you have had before but prepared with quality ingredients by bakers who know their business. If it doesn’t seem as fresh or new or gripping as the Scorsese-Winter brand might suggest, it’s in part because it’s rooted not only in the conventions and obsessions of the director’s own canon but in a decade’s worth of “Sopranos”-influenced cable television as well.

I think this familiarity and skill is going to give Boardwalk Empire an easier time of reaching the crown than other shows. We want a show to talk about like the days of The Sopranos. We want to watch a show that we all think is the best and have little to make us think otherwise. And we want a common cultural experience, events that are so much rarer in a world of 200 channels.

Boardwalk Empire fits our assumptions about what makes a good show and then sprinkles on that names like Buscemi and Scorsese, conforming to our assumptions about what makes something great. Even the hesitation coming from the real critics (most of whom seem to be calling it really good but not great) helps set the stage for the popular opinion push we so love because it makes us think that this is a show of the people.

Again, I’m not disagreeing with Steven, or even Lloyd. I guess I am saying that I liked the show and I think it has about as right a combination of timing and ingredients to establish itself as a huge hit. Like the rest, however, I am still waiting for that to happen.

Monday Blues

Billie Holiday (1915-1959), performing “Now Baby or Never” (written by herself and C.R. Lewis).

Illegal immigrants “are all over my house”

Colin Powell appeared on “Meet the Press” (9/19/10) and spoke about a Republican party he described as “waiting to emerge once again,” a party of moderates who are more balanced in their approach to several issues, including immigration.

Here is the section of his interview where he responds to the opportunistic xenophobia that is currently the preferred stance on immigration within the GOP:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Meet The Press, posted with vodpod.

In his varied defense of reforming this position, he presents an assortment of analytical assumptions, some aspects of which I find more than a little problematic or incomplete. For example, he bases part of his defense of “illegal immigration” on what we might label a utilitarian approach, arguing (in essence) that “we” need “them” to do the work that “we” need done. Powell also presents another fairly opportunistic analysis when he speaks directly to the concerns of an aging “baby boomer” population. He suggests that immigrants are the “lifeblood” of this nation, but he describes that lifeblood as an economic transfusion—the maintaining of a workforce (and implied tax base) to support an aging and retiring population of natives.

Such ways of interpreting the immigration issue are a form of progress on purely policy-oriented terms, since they can lead to a more “moderate” and more realistic immigration system, one that spends less time on criminalizing migrants than on finding pathways for their legal stability. However, they also further a mode of analysis which deprives immigrants of their right to be seen as something more than inanimate workers.

Immigrants have the right—the human right—to be seen and treated as people with desires, concerns, and needs. When we view them in these “disembodied” ways (that is, disconnecting their human selves from the values we derive from their physical selves) we create a context like we have today—where immigration policies promote inhumane forms of detention and removal and, in many cases, outright death.

Viewing immigrants as humans means acting in responsible ways. We all have a responsibility—and I would argue, this is both a moral and a legal responsibility—to recognize and safeguard everyone’s ability to fulfill their basic human needs.

I recognize this is a distinct way of understanding the “immigration issue.” It says the issue is bigger than whether or not it “benefits us” to allow them into “our” nation. It says the issue is, fundamentally, about viewing this nation as part of a larger whole, with an accompanying responsibility to act in deliberate humanistic ways.

Powell flirts with the kinds of understandings I support when he expresses the need for us to spend more effort educating “our minorities” and immigrants. Leaving along the paternalistic tone his choice of words suggests—and not at all discounting the ways his education argument can be interpreted as opportunistic—I view education as a fundamental human right. Education facilitates one’s ability to fulfill their basic human needs. It is intimately connected to a set of opportunities–to achieve meaningful social inclusion, to defend and maintain cultural rights, and to assure true participatory political power.

All this said, I welcome Powell’s stance and hope it gains more traction in our political debate. His vocal support of the Dream Act at this critical hour is the right thing to do. The same can be said for the ways he is promoting a more moderate way of approaching immigration reform. None of this is “perfect,” and it often falls short of true humanism, but who cares?

When we have people dying as a result of our policies there is a moral urgency to creating a policy context that is more just, even if that falls short of perfect.