Bracero Stories


Last week, Hector Tobar wrote an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times on one man’s history as part of the “Bracero Program.” As Tobar adroitly concludes, “Many things have changed in half a century. And many things have not.”

Who is telling Latinos not to vote?

His name is Robert de Posada, and he is a Republican.  He is also the President of a group calling themselves “Latinos for Reform” who, judging from their new ad campaign, are either idiots or morally bankrupt.

The following ad was scheduled to begin running on Univision in Nevada, Florida, and other Latino-rich states.  Univision–who had run the radio version on some of its Nevada stations and who had already accepted an $80,000 ad buy in to begin running the ad on their television network–has now said they will not air the ad.  Telemundo has also agreed not to show it.

For those who don’t speak Spanish, the ad is telling Latinos not to vote in order to send a message to politicians–Democratic politicians who haven’t followed through with their promises to reform immigration.

The idiot de Posada claims he is sincere, and is all just an “effort to express Hispanic frustration with the Democrats failure to deliver on immigration reform.”  The President and other Democrats think  it is a ploy to elect more Republicans.

This is one of the dirtiest and most demeaning political tricks I have seen in a long time.

Here is the English version.

Monday Blues

The Texas-born T-Bone Walker (1910-1975) performing his classic “Stormy Monday” sometime in the mid to late sixties.

Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

Monday Blues

The one and only Big Joe Turner (1911-1985, Kansas City, MO), performing “Wee Baby Blues,” written by himself and jazzman Pete Johnson, and popularized by Nat King Cole. Turner is here performing on British TV here, in 1965, backed up by a solid group composed of some of the UK’s finest jazz/blues aficionados.

The Joker Voted for Nixon

Fifty years ago today, on October 8, 1960, this photo of actors Ginger Rogers and Cesar Romero ran in the LA Times.

Source

By 1960, Rogers was a household name and a Hollywood legend.  An Oscar-winning actress, she had starred in more than 70 movies, and was best known for re-defining the musical genre with her dance partner Fred Astaire.

Romero was no Rogers, but he was no lightweight either.  The New York born cubano had starred in scores of films, ranging from musicals, to comedies, to adventures.  Romero was well-known to movie goers in the 30s and 40s  as the preeminent “Latin lover.”  Later, he played everything from the “heavy” to the comedic foil.

Romero parlayed his initial type casting into a long career, from the big screen to TV.  Six years after this photo was taken, Romero’s name would be forever linked to “Batman” when he was cast as the Joker in the campy TV show starring Adam West.  Today, despite a diverse body of work spanning almost half a century, he is best know for his turn as the warped villian.

In the above photo, Romero and Rogers are attaching bumper stickers to cars.  The stickers are for Dick Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican nominees for President and Vice President in 1960.  One month after the Times published this, Nixon would lose the election to JFK by a mere 112,827 votes, less than 0.17% of the entire popular vote.

The election is particularly well-known in Chicano historical circles because of overt efforts by the Democratic Party to mobilize the Latino vote.  Among their tactics, the Democrats sponsored “¡Viva Kennedy!” clubs to reach out to Spanish-speaking voters in the Southwest and other parts of the nation.

They even enlisted the Senator’s wife in their targeted campaign:

This outreach effort may have been decisive for JFK.  In Texas he won over 90% of the Mexican American electorate, about 200,000 votes.  This helped give him the state and, hence, the presidency.  Overall, Kennedy won an estimated 85% of the Mexican American vote from coast to coast.

To many Mexican American politicos, the results inspired hopes of greater attention from the new administration, if not outright formal appointments.  Their hopes, however, were soon dashed.  JFK paid almost no attention to the issues facing Mexican Americans and other Latinos.

As the above picture reflects, the Republican Party might not have organized “¡Viva Nixon!” clubs across the nation but they didn’t ignore Latino voters entirely.  Romero, whose name and reputation would have been most powerfully regarded among Cuban and older Mexican voters, participated in at least a casual effort to garner some votes for “Tricky Dick.”

In subsequent years, celebrities like Romero and Ricardo Montalbán could help rally religious and conservative members of the Spanish-speaking population to vote for Nixon again and, even after that, Reagan.  Now, fifty years later, Republicans seem to have lost almost all the benefits of these early connections.

As a sustained immigration debate based firmly in racialist ways of knowing nurtures the continual exodus of Latino voters from the Republican side of the fence to the Democratic, it’s interesting to look back and see how the present reality was anything but certain in 1960.