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Feature 042511 Villarreal

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mexican Migrants and their Contributions to the US

By Rosa Martha Villarreal

The recent popular revolts in the Middle East have revived the conversation regarding Historian Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis on what he called “clashing civilizations.”  Mr. Huntington’s original position related to the Islamic World’s supposed hostility to certain values, which Huntington assumed to be “Western.”  However, the demands of the protestors echoed the very principles of every liberal revolution: the human right to dignity, equality under the law, personal freedom, and economic opportunity.  These sentiments, according to Huntington, were antithetical to the aspirations of Islamic masses.  Yet, he was proven wrong.

Mr. Huntington followed his thesis on civilizations with what he called “The Hispanic Challenge.”  Huntington similarly posited that Mexicans are anti-Western and hostile to the American civilization. However, a careful examination of Mr. Huntington’s thesis demonstrates his cynical manipulation of negative prejudices and indifference to facts that do not suit him.

To summarize, Mr. Huntington asserted that the migration of Mexicans into the United States threatens the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant creed, and, thus, the very foundation of what made the country great.  There are too many fallacies with this reasoning to adequately cover in a paper of this length, but Mr. Huntington argues that European immigrants were useful and non-threatening because they adopted a supposedly immutable American creed.

However, history bears out that these immigrants did not immediately assimilate.  They kept their traditions and many times brought their feuds and hatreds with them, as Martin Scorsese eloquently depicted in his historical film Gangs of New York, which was based on the events leading to the 1863 New York City draft riots.  Additionally, Mr. Huntington does not bother to examine the manner in which previous immigrants evolved the American collective identity, particularly in the cities.  In Gold Rush California, for example, the Chinese made an indelible mark on the social and literary consciousness which remains to this day.  The same is true of Italian Americans who retained cultural ties to their Latin roots and have created their own unique American brand.

Returning to Mexicans, Mr. Huntington surely knew the history of “Mexicans” in the United States.  When the U.S. “acquired” (sic) the vast Mexican territories in 1848, the land came with people.  In my home state of Texas, several large founding families with roots dating to the mid-1500’s were divided by the new border: among them the Longorias, the Inclans, the Floreses, and the Villarreals.  The depth of Spanish culture in the Southwest is revealed in the names and architecture of towns—Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Antonio among many, many others; the omnipresent missions, the streets and suburbs still bearing the names of land grant owners—Boronda, Bernal, Berryessa, Vallejo; and the nicknames of the Hispanic-Mestizo pre-1848 populations: Tejanos, Californios and "Manitos," not to mention the cultural fiber—celebrations, language, customs.

Mexican migrations were based on preexisting extended family ties.  Later, Mexicans from different regions also immigrated and settled in preexisting Hispanic communities.  These migrations have been continuous and uninterrupted since 1848, and are not a new “invasion” to reclaim these territories for Mexico.  Economics, not politics, was and remains the main reason for these migrations.  Ironically, although Mexicans are very nationalistic, they have historically viewed the United States with a mix of wonder, admiration and resentment, and above all they have unwittingly subscribed to the discredited notion of “American Exceptionalism.”  The later was a palatable explanation why the northern neighbor was better off: the national project in and of itself was “exceptional,” decreed from above.

It is difficult to believe that any historian with a PhD would not be aware of the aforementioned facts.  More troubling, though, is that Mr. Huntington resorts to using stereotypes as arguments, among them that Mexicans possess a maņana culture, i.e.  inherently lazy and lacking ambition.  (I find it neither lazy nor ambitionless when people cross the Sonoran desert in the summer.)  Anyone who lives in areas where they can observe Mexican immigrants will see them working earnestly and uncomplainingly.  If they were to wait until “tomorrow,” they and their families would starve, as even those who may get public assistance for their American born children could not make ends meet on handouts.

It seems as though Mr. Huntington took the derogatory depiction of a Mexican sleeping under a cactus as a fact.  Furthermore, the expression maņana, used by both Mexicans and Spaniards, idiomatically and contextually can translate to “chill out,” not let’s take a nap. 

Every culture has its undesirable social element—its underclass.  It is an unavoidable part of human nature.  The terms used by the middle class to describe their respective ethnic group’s unsavory element bear this out: e.g.,  “ghetto,” “white trash,” and “cholos.”  Mr. Huntington and his acolytes, nevertheless, selectively focus on the Mexican version of undesirability and apply it to everyone, as if there is an endemic, genetic defect that inflicts people of Mexican descent.

So what of his charge of non-assimilation?  Linda Chavez has argued that Hispanics (meaning “Mexicans”) do assimilate.  By the third generation, says Ms. Chavez, American born “Mexicans” speak little or no Spanish at all.  She is being generous because by the second generation today’s Mexican Americans are English dominate and intermarry at the same rate as Asians.  We can attribute their assimilation to mass-media modernity and, ironically, the educational system which so many disparage.  With the availability of mass-media devices, television, and popular culture, it’s logistically impossible for children of Mexican immigrants to remain culturally isolated, as Mr. Huntington insists.  What he terms “enclaves”—the likes of East Los Angeles—are by-products of Hispanism dating back to the 1500’s and the sensibilities of recent immigrants, many of whom are poorer and less-educated than their predecessors.  The negative manifestations of these enclaves, moreover, have more to do with socioeconomic factors than Mexican-ness.

It is true that in the 19th century and early 20th century the Mexican American communities remained mostly isolated, culturally and linguistically.  Leonard Pitt’s book The Decline of the Californios  provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of the state of hostility and dispossession of private property encountered by Hispanics in California after the American conquest.  Hispanics in 19th century Texas and New Mexico likewise experienced hostility and violence, including lynching.  Small wonder Hispanics didn’t want to assimilate.

World War II, however, dramatically changed that equation.  Mexican Americans fought and died in numbers disproportionate to their percentage of the population in that war, Korea, and Vietnam.  These veterans and their grassroots efforts (e.g. the GI Forum) embraced America patriotism and quietly transformed the Mexican heritage population more than any other group.  By the time the Chicano Movement burst on the scene in the mid-1960’s, the Mexican American population was already in full assimilation mode.  There was a nascent and growing educated, professional and business class.  Among those was Katherine D. Ortega, who served as President Reagan’s Treasurer of the United States.

To understand today’s realities regarding the cultural state of Mexican Americans, one must experience life in the traditional Hispanic “enclaves” such as California and Texas.  In the affluent restaurants, one sees not only immigrant busboys but notices that many customers are affluent, middle-class Mexican Americans.  In the Silicon Valley in San Jose, California, Mexican Americans are found at every level in the high tech industries from technicians to research engineers, among them my younger brother Hector Villarreal.

In Texas, most of my first cousins are employed in the energy sector as engineers, energy traders, and technicians.  In the entertainment industry, there are not only more Mexican Americans represented, but they are no longer ghettoized in roles as servants, gangsters, and prostitutes.  The same can be said of professional sports—mainly baseball and football—with not only big stars like Mark Sanchez and Evan Longoria, but standouts like the San Francisco Giants' Sergio Romo whose parents were farm workers.

So, if the Mexican ancestry population is rapidly integrating itself into an American–style modernity, why the hostility?  Could it be that the center of power has shifted?

Is this what Tea Party adherents—predominately old, white, and Protestant—mean when they say they must take their (sic) country back?  Strangely, isn’t the desire to take the country back in time similar to the recidivist goals of Islamic extremists?


Rosa Martha Villarreal is an adjunct professor at Cosumnes River College, and a member of PEN USA.  She is the author of the PEN award-winning novel The Stillness of Love and Exile, which she will discuss at the Women’s Literary Festival in Santa Barbara, California, on May13-14.

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