VIVA EL PERRO: We all pick the myths we pretend to live by and confuse them with historical fact. Me, I’ve always been a sucker for the Statue of Liberty and Zorro. Such notions might be relevant as we enter one of Santa Barbara’s greatest collective delusions ever, the 90th celebration of Fiesta. Sure, Fiesta is a great time for everyone to get drunk, act the fool, and crack total strangers with cascarone confetti eggs. Fiesta has been dismissed by some of my favorite revisionists as an exaltation of a past that never was, but that’s not quite right. For a brief glimmer of a historic second, California was neither Spanish, Mexican, nor American. It was Californio, and in that blink of a pre-Gold Rush eye, it was run for, by, and of Californios, a land populated by polyglottal mutts from all over the globe but unaffiliated with any flags of origin.
Conspicuously written out of this fabulous narrative are the Chumash, who only happened to live here 12,000 years. In its passing, Californio has become the land of languid lassitude, perpetually strumming guitars, and a cavalcade of endlessly golden sunsets into which los caballeros are forever riding their great steeds, their caballeras presumably swooning in erotic flutter discreetly offstage. Even then, this idyllic Eden had the taint of unwanted immigrants. But back then, they were the land-grabbing Yankees from New England, young men who, according to historical accounts, congregated in uncomfortably large numbers in public parks, urinated freely wherever they stood, got drunk, picked fights, and laughed loudly while making lewd remarks to the women passing by. Sound familiar? No authorities were so foolhardy, however, to seek a gang injunction to curb this “substantial and unreasonable nuisance.” With the Gold Rush of 1849 and the subsequent Yankee invasion, the displaced landed gents of Californio persuasion rose up in revolt and became bandits.
Zorro is perhaps the most famous, stealing gold from Santa Ynez cattlemen engorged on profits made by selling beef at extortionate prices to the 49ers. He also sliced off his victims’ ears, keeping them on the equine equivalent of a key chain. The real Zorro, of course, was a certified bandit badass named Joaquin Murrieta — not to be confused with the four other Joaquins then also plundering and pillaging — who eventually would be hunted down by the Yankees, killed, and decapitated, his head placed in an oversized pickle jar (big-screen TV, as well as due process, not having been invented yet). For anyone remotely aware of how history is a giant snake forever swallowing its own tale, the ironies are inescapable. Murrieta is the namesake of the border town recently made infamous by the hate-intoxicated protests waged there by residents against the kids crossing the border while fleeing unimaginable horrors in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
I understand how 58,000 unaccompanied kids, any place, is a logistical nightmare. But when you appreciate the extent that these are our chickens coming home to roost, it’s hard to feel too righteous about the sanctity of the border. For decades, these countries were ruled by the United Fruit Company (hence the term “banana republic”), and if the populace got uppity about democratic rights, the U.S. Marines would be dispatched — with considerable frequency — to remind them no such rights existed. By the 1990s, the crows congregating at certain beaches in El Salvador had grown so fat picking away at the human remains dumped there by the death squads that they could no longer fly. Doing the dumping were paramilitary quasi-governmental agents paid for by the U.S. taxpayer to the tune of $6 billion. Salvadoran refugees fled to Los Angeles, where they formed gangs initially for protection and subsequently for profit and predation. They got so scary we started deporting them back at a clip of 1,500 a month. Little wonder El Salvador would become the murder capital of the universe, boasting at one time a homicide rate of 100 per 100,000.
Things there have cooled off somewhat, and that distinction is now held by neighboring Honduras, now said by the United Nations to be twice as deadly as Iraq in 2012. In the first six months of this year, 500 teens there (under 18) were murdered. Nationwide, 91 out of every 100,000 residents is killed to death. Imagine 91 homicides a year in Santa Barbara, home to 100,000 residents. In a bad year, we have three. More than that, we’re ready to declare a state of siege and suspend the constitution. Nationally, we spent $800 million on Central America since 2008, and yeah, Obama is talking about $3.7 billion now. But the vast bulk of both have gone — or will go — to police and military functions. By contrast, for a mere $62 million, you could put all 58,000 in school for an entire year. Maybe a community like ours, where it’s a capital offense to speak harshly to one’s dog, could step up in some fashion. Between Direct Relief, the fire department, a ton of vacant land at the airport, and a few National Guard armories that just sit unoccupied — not to mention more nonprofits per square foot than any community on the planet — maybe there’s a way we could chip in rather than shipping these kids out and inserting them, face first, into the wood chippers from whence they’ve fled.
I understand with immigration there are no good answers. But what the hell happened to taking care of “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning”? What about “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”? These are the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, written, it turns out, by a socialist Zionist poet, in response to the mass exodus of Russian Jews fleeing yet another antisemitic pogrom sweeping the shtetls. Sound familiar? If not, it should. Next time you’re in New York, be sure to crack a cascarone on the head of Lady Liberty. When you get arrested, say the dog sent you. In the meantime, Viva La.