One of the strangest moments of the Republican primaries came during a debate last November in Florida, when Colorado Congressmember Tom Tancredo declared that not only is he against illegal immigration — he opposes the legal variety, too.
Fringe candidates are a mainstay of primary campaigns, but what was interesting about this particular instance was that, with the notable exception of John McCain, Tancredo’s more mainstream opponents outdid themselves in trying to match his extreme rhetoric. At the time, President Bush was trying push a comprehensive immigration reform package through Congress — a move polls showed was deeply unpopular with a strong majority of Americans, particularly conservatives-and, unsurprisingly, political expedience won the day. After the debate Tancredo justifiably quipped that his opponents, minus McCain, were trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.”
Why is Latin American immigration to the United States, and particularly Mexican immigration, the subject of such fierce antipathy in much of the American electorate? And what about comprehensive immigration reform? Will it be enacted in the foreseeable future-possibly under a new administration, and with a different Congress?
To the latter question, Gregory Rodriguez has a short answer: unlikely. A columnist for the L.A. Times, Rodriguez is senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. In a telephone interview conducted in advance of his upcoming Santa Barbara appearance, Rodriguez said he doubts a McCain administration would have any more luck than Bush did, and it will likely prove even harder to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress if Barack Obama is elected. “I’ve always thought it was a Nixon goes to China thing,” he said. “It seemed to me that a Republican might be in a better position to push for comprehensive immigration reform, but given Bush’s failure to get it through, that’s called into question.”
To the question of why Mexican immigration is such a hot topic in this country today, Rodriguez has a much longer answer, which comes in the form of his new book, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America. Resolutely nuanced and deeply researched, Mongrels is not necessarily what regular readers of his column might expect. In the Times, Rodriguez is provocative and unpredictable, but the book, although deftly written, is the opposite of a punchy polemic. Replete with extensive footnotes and long, detailed passages of historical analysis, it’s a wide-ranging intellectual history of what Rodriguez calls the “mestizaje”-the racial and cultural synthesis of Amerindians with Europeans, from the Spanish conquest in the 16th century into the present day.
Rodriguez begins with the harsh social stratifications of early Mexican society, and then moves into the Mexican-American War. He describes how, after the U.S. defeated the Mexican army in 1848 and annexed large parts of the West (including California), many white Americans’ enthusiasm for the vast land grab was tempered by their dislike of the Mexican “mongrels.” “Even as their nation expanded,” Rodriguez writes, “Americans recoiled in horror at the thought of absorbing an alien population.”
Much of the rest of Rodriguez’s book is dedicated to exploring the steady Mexican immigration into the United States that took place over the course of the 20th century (Mexican Americans are now the largest immigrant group in U.S. history). For the most part, it’s not an especially pretty picture-Mexican immigrants were treated at best with ambivalence, and while the large infusions of seasonal labor they supplied white employers was tacitly welcomed, larger cultural and political assimilation was often hard fought.
A great deal of Mongrels is given over to exploring the long and fierce debate in the Mexican-American community about the relative merits of assimilation and multiculturalism. In the late 1970s, the latter had become a dominant paradigm among Chicano academics, Rodriguez says, but today polls show that most Mexican Americans place about equal importance on maintaining their distinct culture as they do with blending into the larger society. “As they have throughout their history, Mexican Americans continue to seek a balance between continuity and change,” he writes.
On the phone, Rodriguez said to the degree that Mongrels has a central message, it’s that the common view of Latin American immigrants, and Mexican immigrants in particular, as a single cultural bloc is long outdated. “The only way to understand the Mexican experience in the United States in the long term is to disaggregate. Fifth, fourth, third, second, and first generation Mexican Americans don’t necessarily have that much in common.” Rodgriguez said the terms Latino and Hispanic are similarly hidebound. “While those generics are useful on some level, they’re [also] too all-inclusive, and too vague. When we use Latino, or Hispanic, we bury the ever-important distinctions, not only of origin and geographical location, but also between generations.”
Rodriguez said that while he’s disappointed by the current antipathy toward Mexican immigration among many Americans-something he chalked up partly to racism, partly to economics, and partly to fear of demographic shifts-he believes that Mexican Americans are breaking down old social stratifications. Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds offers a finely written and vigorously convincing testimony to that belief.
Gregory Rodriguez will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, October 20, at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.