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Friday, January 27, 2012

January 27, 2012: Mexican American Migrations

[This week, I’ll be following up Monday’s post on Arizona’s assaults on the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and arguing for four crucial ways in which American identity and culture are interwoven with Mexican American Studies. This is the fourth and final entry in the series.]

An argument for two of the many ways in which our narratives of Mexican American migration to the United States should be made more complex and accurate.

Anti-immigrant activists, such as those who compose the core of the repulsive Minutemen operation, have long argued that Mexicans immigrating to the United States (and those who have already infiltrated our borders) are planning a “Reconquista,” a reconquest of the Southwest that will take the region back for Mexico. If you’ve been reading this week’s posts, you know how ludicrous the very nature of that idea is, for all sorts of reasons but perhaps especially because it is Mexican Americans whose homes and lives have been the subject of illegal and brutal conquests over the last century and a half; it is for that reason quite fitting that many of the most vociferous supporters of Arizona’s racist laws are apparently themselves new arrivals to the state and region, replicating quite blatantly the invasive arrivals of prior Anglo settlers such as Burton’s “squatter.”

Even if we set aside these “Reconquista” fears as the xenophobic garbage they are, though, the fact remains that it’s not quite sufficient to consider Mexican Americans coming into the United States as “immigrants.” Certainly that’s the overt category for each individual arrival, but the term also serves more generally to elide (or cement existing elisions of) the histories of Mexican American presences and homes about which I wrote yesterday. Fortunately here, as on so many aspects of American history, culture, literature, community, and identity, Gloria Anzaldúa has a better idea: in the opening and closing prose chapters of her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), she describes both her journeys between Mexico and the United States and the parallel journeys of all Mexican American migrants as “el retorno,” the return. This multi-faceted use of the phrase allows her to recognize that the movement is not simply in one direction, neither historically nor in the contemporary moment; and it likewise captures the multiple homes and homelands that define the Mexican American experience.

Perhaps the other most important correction I would make to our national narratives of Mexican American migration would be in the sense that such movement is a relatively recent phenomenon (or at least that it has exploded in recent years). No scholarly work better challenges that perspective, both in its date of first publication and (even more) in its impressively comprehensive historical sweep and coverage, than Carey McWilliams’ groundbreaking book North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking Peoples of the United States (1949, although recent editions have updated its histories through the end of the 20th century). For an even more succinct historical lesson, every American Studier should read Congressman John Box’s 1928 speech arguing for the inclusion of Mexican Americans among the groups restricted by the exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924, in order to “stop at the border the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico” (which is among the least offensive phrases in Box’s speech). Neither Mexican American migration nor xenophobic opposition to it is the slightest bit new or recent in our national history and identity.

The protests and responses in Tucson have continued all week, and my thoughts are with those students and all who support them; a petition to express that support is here. Mexican American Studies and American Studies are entirely and profoundly interconnected, and to reenact the historical attacks on Mexican Americans is to take precisely the wrong lesson from our shared history. More this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

1/27 Memory Day nominee: Samuel Gompers, the Anglo-Jewish immigrant and cigar maker who became one of the labor movement’s earliest and most eloquent and committed leaders and advocates.

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