Chavela Vargas turned 92 yesterday. Born in Costa Rica, she migrated to Mexico at the age of 15 and, in time, became a well-regarded singer in small bars and cantinas. At the age of 32 she began her professional recording career, a career that has now spanned sixty years.
She is a powerful figure in the world of Mexican ranchera music but in many ways inhabits a symbolism far greater than just that. As transgressor of gender norms who often took to dressing like a man; to her connections to other legendary figures like José Alfredo Jiménez and Frida Khalo (she was one of the artist’s lovers); to her struggles and recoveries through bouts with alcohol; to her sexuality (she publicly confirmed her lesbianism in her 80s); and her ups and downs in her own professional career, accented with a late-in-life resurgence, she is Mexico.
She is the most fitting person to perform the first ranchera selection on “Monday Blues,” here singing “Un Mundo Raro”
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.
From our habitually Clintonian moderate President of these United States:
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 3, 2010
READOUT OF THE PRESIDENT’S MEETING WITH GOVERNOR BREWER OF ARIZONA
The President had a good meeting with Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona at the White House today to discuss a range of critical issues of mutual interest, including the President’s comprehensive plan to secure the Southwest border and the unprecedented resources his Administration has devoted to that effort. The President and Governor Brewer also discussed the President’s decision to deploy up to an additional 1,200 requirements-based National Guard troops to the border and his upcoming request to Congress of $500 million in supplemental funds for enhanced border protection and law enforcement activities as part of that integrated strategy. The President listened to Governor Brewer’s concerns, and noted that the Administration’s ongoing border protection and security efforts have increased pressure on illegal trafficking organizations through record seizures of illegal weapons and bulk cash transiting from the United States to Mexico, resulted in significant seizures of illegal drugs headed into the United States, lowered the average violent crime statistics in states along the Southwest Border, and reduced illegal immigration into the United States.
Despite the significant improvements, the President acknowledged the understandable frustration that all Americans share about the broken immigration system, and the President and Governor agreed that the lack of action to fix the broken system at the federal level is unacceptable. As he did at the recent meeting with Senate Republicans, the President underscored that security measures alone won’t fix the broken borders, there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform that includes: lasting and dedicated resources by which to secure our borders and make our communities safer; holding unscrupulous employers accountable who hire workers illegally and exploit them and providing clear guidance for the many employers who want to play by the rules; and requiring those who have come here illegally to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, and get right with the law. The President urged Governor Brewer to be his partner in working in a bipartisan manner on comprehensive immigration reform to implement the type of smart, sensible, and effective solutions the American people expect and deserve from their federal government. Regarding Arizona law SB1070, the President reiterated his concern with the measure, including that a patchwork of different state immigration regulations around the country would interfere with the federal government’s responsibility to set and enforce immigration policy.
On Sunday, May 16, 2010, Pomona College will celebrate the One Hundred and Seventeenth Commencement ceremony in the College’s history as we graduate the Class of 2010. This year’s commencement speaker will be Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, the primary federal official responsible for the US immigration system.
As members of the faculty of the College, and as members of the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies, my colleagues and I are honored to participate in a ceremony that celebrates the achievements of the graduating seniors. But we would not be doing our job as members of an institution of higher education–or as people of conscience who have dedicated their lives to advancing understanding for the betterment of our society and world–if we let this moment pass without recognizing the opportunity for learning it provides.
That is why we composed the following, which is being distributed as I write these words:
“They only are loyal to this college who departing bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”
James A. Blaisdell, President of Pomona College (1910-1927)
As we celebrate the Pomona College class of 2010, we wear white stoles as a symbolic statement in support of immigrants’ fundamental human rights. As people of conscience, we call for 1) an immediate end to the current practice of raids, detentions, and deportations that divide families and violate rights, 2) meaningful legislation which enables real immigration reform, and 3) a fair path to citizenship.
IMMIGRANTS ARE AMERICANS
Before 1965, immigration to the US was regulated solely on the basis of “racial fitness.” Northern European migration was easy while migration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America was limited or banned. Still, workers were “imported” from the Third World to do a host of undesirable jobs.
Approximately 14% of the current US population is foreign-born. (US Census Bureau) “Unauthorized” migrants are individuals who either reside or work in the US without authorization. They comprise less than 4% of the US population, but more than 5.4% of the US workforce. (US Dept. of Labor)
17% of US construction workers are unauthorized migrants. 25% of the people who pick your food are unauthorized migrants. (Passel 2009)
IMMIGRANT RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
According to the Government Accounting Office, on average, ONE person dies everyday while trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
The US does NOT imprison most unauthorized immigrants for criminal violations, because being an unauthorized immigrant is not a criminal offense but a civil violation.
More than 350,000 immigrants are detained by the US each year, including asylum seekers, survivors of torture and human trafficking, lawful permanent residents and the parents of U.S. citizen children. (US Dept. of Homeland Security)
Immigrants can be detained for months (even years) without any form of judicial review of their status. More than 80% percent can not obtain legal representation. (Human Rights Watch)
Detainees often do not get timely treatment for their medical needs. 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years. Detention facilities standards are not legally binding. With little oversight for abuse or neglect, many US practices violate international standards. (Amnesty International)
IMMIGRATION REFORM IS FAIR, AFFORDABLE, AND HUMANE
The average cost of detaining an immigrant is $95 per person/per day, but alternatives cost as little as $12. Despite the proven effectiveness of these less restrictive alternatives, the US chooses imprisonment. (Amnesty International)
Congress should pass legislation ensuring detention be used as a measure of last resort. When it is used, all detained persons should have access to individualized hearings on their detention.
Reporting requirements should be fair, non-invasive, and not difficult to comply with, especially for families with children and those of limited financial means.
The US government should ensure the adoption of enforceable human rights detention standards in all detention facilities. There should be effective independent oversight to ensure compliance with detention standards and accountability for any violations.
Compiled by the Intercollegiate Department of Chicano~Latino Studies at the Claremont Colleges.
It’s that time of year again, “Hispanic (Latino) Heritage Month.” What better way to celebrate than to learn a little something?
So here it goes: for the next month, I’ll be going out of my way to post some historical primary sources relating to the Chicano experience in the United States.
Of course, it deserves mentioning that the historical experience of Chicanos (Mexican Americans) and “ethnic Mexicans” (which includes both immigrants and US-born people of Mexican descent) should not be seen as the exact equivalent of the historical experience of all “Hispanics” or all “Latinos.” They represent about 70% of the Latin American-descent population of the United States, one that also includes a large number of people with ties to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, increasingly, Central American nations like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Each “group” not only has a unique historical experience in the US, but they also have a diverse past internal to their own ethnicity.
But there are commonalities, too. And maybe this can be a way for us to explore some of those. So here we go…
Source 1: New York Daily News, October 13, 1845.
This excerpt from an editorial printed in the New York Daily News opines on the recent annexation of Texas by the US, an act agreed to by the “citizens” of the “Republic of Texas” just that month. Texas, which had been part of the Mexican Republic, was seized by a group of US Americans and, in 1836 controlled by them after they defeated the Mexican army. For the better part of the next decade, most of them sought annexation by the US, with the full support of expansionist allies in the Congress and White House. With the election of the expansionist Polk in 1844, their efforts finally came to fruition. Outgoing President Tyler helped assure the passage of a resolution annexing Texas in the spring of 1845.
The author’s perspective here is reflective of the kinds of interpretations common among elites of his day, in particular those who were in favor of expansion. Notice how the “acquisition” of Texas is contrasted with European imperialism. Also notice how the writer views the land into which the US is moving, and by his mind, to which it intends to move. The idea that their spread was destined to be is a powerful feature of expansionist thought, as is the contention that it is conquest for the betterment of mankind.
It is looked upon as aggression, and all the bad and odious features which the habits of thought of Europeans associate with aggressive deeds, are attributed to it. . . But what has Belgium, Silesia, Poland or Bengal in common with Texas? It is surely not necessary to insist that acquisitions of territory in America, even if accomplished by force of arms, are not to be viewed in the same light as the invasions and conquests of the States of the old world. . . our way lies, not over trampled nations, but through desert wastes, to be brought by our industry and energy within the domain of art and civilization. We are contiguous to a vast portion of the globe, untrodden save by the savage and the beast, and we are conscious of our power to render it tributary to man. This is a position which must give existence to a public law, the axioms of which a Pufendorf [Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694), German political philosopher] or Vattel [Emer de Vattel (1714-1767, Swiss political philosopher and diplomat] had no occasion to discuss. . .
It has been laid down and acted upon, that the solitudes of America are the property of the immigrant children of Europe and their offspring. Not only has this been said and reiterated, but it is actually, although perhaps, not heretofore dwelt upon with sufficient distinctness, the basis of public law in America. Public sentiment with us repudiates possession without use, and this sentiment is gradually acquiring the force of established public law. It has sent our adventurous pioneers to the plains of Texas, will carry them to the Rio del Norte, and even that boundary, purely nominal and conventional as it is, will not stay them on their march to the Pacific, the limit which nature has provided. In like manner it will come to pass that the confederate democracies of the Anglo American race will give this great continent as an inheritance to man. . . We take from no man; the reverse rather—we give to man.
The “Border Beat” is back with its bi-weekly rundown of Latino-themed news and views. The July 4th holiday and the typical summertime doldrums mean a slow time for politics, and that means immigration reform talk is, well, talk. Still, there was some noteworthy talk when Obama convened an immigration legislation meeting at the White House late last month. We’ll see where it goes. Me, I ain’t going nowhere.
Here’s the stories you might have missed:
• “Worker heat reform falters” (Modesto Bee)
This is the “near miss” story of the week as Cal-OSHA’s standards board overruled its field safety chiefs on a set of proposed amendments to the state regulations on “heat-stress.” For those not familiar with these regulations, they require employers to provide shade, extra breaks, and water for agricultural laborers working on hot days. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your view of race and power in CA), these regulations arose only after the 2006 round of deaths due to heat exposure in the fields. These proposed changes would have essentially relaxed the regulations, allowing for “grape vines” to count as “shade,” among other lunacies.
• “Pioneer researcher retires” (North County Times)
I normally bypass articles coming from really small publications unless they are significant in some way. This one is significant in every way. Legendary immigration researcher Wayne Cornelius has retired. In his 40 year career, Professor Cornelius advanced the field of immigration studies with his comprehensive approach to the topic. If there is a white guy who is a card-carrying honorary Chicano, this is the guy. Happy retirement Dr. Cornelius!
• “Immigration attorney tells immigrants, ‘Don’t be scared’ about new laws” (Deseret News)
Here’s a kicker for you: Utah’s new anti-“illegal” immigrant law went into effect last week, even though nobody with any credibility on the left or the right seems to want it. Law officials and politicians fear it will cause a flurry of discrimination claims and be costly, since the population of “illegals” in the state is so small compared to the population of legal Latinos and Mexican Americans. Latinos are urging people to be vigilant and know their rights. The comments at the bottom of the story–from the rank-and-file idiot brigade–are a reminder of why it is law.
• “In Mexican Vote, Nostalgia for Past Corruption” (NY Times)
The PRI won the latest round of midterm elections in Mexico. All corruption jokes aside, it is a move worth keeping track of for the years ahead.
• “New realities eroding border double standard” (Arizona Republic)
People who work on the border and know what they are talking about have talked about the “double standard” between the U.S. border with Canada and that with Mexico since we stopped fearing a Canadian military invasion. The everyday understanding of this phenomenon is not so widely disseminated. Hence, the value of this piece. While the author celebrates the “erosion” with the recent passport regulations (since both are treated equally), let’s keep in mind small steps are made even smaller when they still revolve around institutionalizing our general fear of the border and what lurks beyond it.
• “U.S. Hispanics Live Longer, Despite Socio-Economic Hurdles” (HispanicBusiness.com)
David Hayes-Bautista is making some recent press with his decade-old findings that deserve all the attention he can muster for them. Latinos live longer than the rest of the US population. Hayes-Bautista calls it the “Hispanic Paradox” since, demographically, Latinos would be sure bets to live shorter lives. So suck it Minutemen!
• “Pastor who opposes homosexuality may get Chicago City Council seat” (Chicago Tribune)
Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, is about to be appointed to fill a vacant seat on the City Council. Thing is, his church is famously anti-homosexual, believing it something akin to a sickness. De Jesus is a notable activist in his district and his impending appointment is seen as an advance for representational rights for Latinos. The paradox here is rich and important. I think we’re going to be seeing more of this kind of thing in the future and it is a welcome encumbrance to politics on the left. Eventually, Latinos and other so-called “progressives” are going to have the reach the point where they see the contradictions inherent in a public anti-LGBT equality stance and a representing poor communities of color. Eventually.
The Presidents of Venezuela and the United States have “informally” crossed paths twice at this weekends’ Summit of the Americas. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama first exchanged words yesterday, and then, today, Chavez gave Obama a book as a gift.
The book he gave him is Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. (Here’s a recent article on Galeano where he discusses some of his ideas on Latin America and his new book, Espejos.) The text is a familiar one to students of Latin American history, serving as it does as something of an introduction to European and U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere.
That’s right; Chavez just suggested Obama “go to school” on the imperial history of his nation.
I suspect the big O already knows a bit about that past (and, regrettably, present), but I still hope he takes the time to read Galeano. It’s one of those life changing books, challenging as it does many of the fundamental assumptions of U.S. involvement in the hemisphere.
But Chavez didn’t stop there. In comments he delivered on Saturday, Chavez said the U.S. “must breakaway from the concept of viewing us as its backyard.” (See the full story here.) The notion of “proximity” has always been a prcursor to U.S. empire, as argued (with copious amounts of proof) by scholars like Lars Schoultz and Louis Pérez Jr. When he said that, Chavez wasn’t speaking to Latin America, the only part of the hemisphere that seems to be reporting on his remarks. He was intentionally trying to “teach” the U.S. about the problems of its own “savior” tendencies.
Chavez is a well-read man, familiar with much of the recent work in Latin American history produced by English-language writers. Some years ago, he made a public appearance holding Empire’s Workshop, by historian Greg Grandin (a stellar book, btw). Our president has the chance to show Latin Americans he is more than a machine spouting off the rhetoric of neoliberalism, like our previous 43 guys in office. A good start might be by showing them he understands what it is they know and why they know it.
But, then again, it’s politics.
“Boys sitting on truck parked at the FSA … labor camp, Robston, Tex.”
Photographed Arthur Rothstein, (1915- )
Photograph is part of the Library of Congress collection available online at the LOC flickr page.