There are a number of videos circulating on the web that show angry white people screaming at Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to “Go back to where you came from!” It takes a special brand of stupid for, say, a Texan living in a town with a name like Llano located in Llano County to tell a Mexican or Mexican-American to “go back to where they came from.” For when you’re in Texas—a different spelling of the Spanish Tejas—in a county named Llano, which means plain or flat in Spanish, and in a town also named Llano for its flat ground, and you find yourself yelling at someone named Garcia or Gallegos to go home, you might be the one with the problem.
In a country with state names like Colorado, California, and New Mexico, and city names like Santa Fe, Amarillo, La Junta, and San Diego, it’s obvious that explorers, ranchers, store owners, priests, and law men had previous history in what is now Mexico. Our forebears were not just the ones who landed on the east coast after crossing the Atlantic, but also the ones who came up from south of the border, long before a border existed.
More than 200 years before the United States was even a gleam in the eye of one of our revolutionaries, Spaniards traveling up from what is now Mexico were exploring the southwest. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado set off on a two-year exploration in search of the mythological seven cities of Cibola with hopes of bringing home gold and silver. Leaving the territory of present day Mexico, he traveled through what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and possibly Kansas. On his trip he encountered the Grand Canyon but never found the promised gold and his trip was considered a failure.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, was officially founded in 1610 by Don Pedro de Peralta, a governor appointed by the Spanish viceroy. The state of New Mexico was under Spanish and then Mexican control right up until 1848 and Texas was part of Mexico right up until 1836. In fact, nine states were part of Mexico right up until The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848: New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and parts of Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Obviously Latinos have scaled the heights of nearly every field from law to medicine, and from politics to professorships. Sonya Sotomayor is a shining example of a Latina who has reached the pinnacle of achievement with her appointment to the Supreme Court and her ensuing brilliance in the oral arguments and written opinions.
Scores of other Latinos have been governors, US Representatives, Senators, scholars, soldiers, scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs. Since those Latinos who have reached that level of professional achievement have a little more protection from the nativist ire, I wanted to talk about Latino laborers, the ones so often abused in our culture.
Let’s face it, there’s a lot that wouldn’t get done without the massive Latino labor force in the United States. From the vegetables you eat to the roof that keeps the rain out and most everything in between, that Latino labor force has likely had a hand—literally—in keeping you warm, fed, sheltered, and safe.
More than half the hired farm workers in the United States are Hispanic. In California, which produces by far the most fruits, nuts, and vegetables of any state—close to half of what we consume—around 90% of the farmworkers are Latino. Only about 5% are white. Chances are that avocado or bunch of grapes you enjoyed was planted, picked, and packed by a Latino. And chances are that Latino doing the hard work under the hot sun is not a US citizen. The vast majority of hired farm workers are not US citizens, live far below the poverty line, and have no health insurance.
It’s one thing to live with this inherent contradiction of enjoying the fruits of low paid immigrant labor while trying to thoughtfully sort out our immigration issues, it’s quite another to go full nuclear bigot. And these last few years have produced a bumper crop of bigots in the United States.
There are few things more reprehensible than watching some lilly-lotioned, pampered politician go on and on about how immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America represent a class of thieving, raping, drug-running people. Evidence suggests that both legal and illegal immigrants have significantly lower crime rates than native born Americans. A paper published in 2020 by the Cato Foundation (co-founded by Charles Koch and not exactly a liberal organization) found that crime rates among illegal immigrants were 782 per 100,000, among legal immigrants 535 per 100,000, and—wait for it—1,422 per 100,000 among native born Americans.
It doesn’t take much imagination to deduce the desperation and desire for a better life that motivates people to risk it all, leave hearth and home, and cross great distances for the possibility of picking lettuce for poor wages in San Benito, California. In my experience as an employer, Latinos have a tremendous work ethic, a thriftiness, and loyalty that is simply hard to match.
One memory I have from about five years ago illustrates this. On an early spring day when it was still snowing one of our irrigation ditches blew out. I asked the Mexican man who was already working for me if he had a friend or two for extra help in repairing the ditch. He showed up with a cousin and I noticed the cousin was wearing work clothes but his shoes were cheap loafers. I mentioned the loafers and the snow and poor footing and the fellow said they were the only shoes he had and he’d be fine. We were too far out to get him another pair of boots. I was dubious but we set out to fix the ditch. The guy worked all day in the mud and snow moving huge logs and rocks—in cheap loafers with zero traction—and didn’t gripe once.One of the great ironies of American bigots is that once upon a time, their own ancestors likely had all the same reasons for leaving Italy or Ireland or Germany or Poland. And their ancestors likely had the same pluck of today’s immigrants, bearing poor wages and abuse by earlier nativists. Italians or Irishmen came to America and were called WOPS or Paddies and suffered the indignities of those getting a foothold in a new land. Some of their great grandchildren now ferment in their smug certitude of being “true Americans.” It’s a rotten fermentation producing cheap vinegar, nothing like good wine.
One of those bigoted Italian descendants is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has taken his bigotry national. You’ve probably already read about his truly witless stunt shipping a group of 50 men, women, and children seeking refuge in the United States, from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. DeSantis took $12MM from the Florida coffers to lure the refugees with false promises of jobs, legal status, and relocation to Boston. He then had them flown to Martha’s Vineyard without notifying any authorities there as a way to teach the northeastern “librulls” about the border problem. If that isn’t the definition of human trafficking and criminal fraud, I don’t know what is. Moreover, it is a heartless form of bigotry that should forever disqualify DeSantis from ever reaching his golden-ring ambition of becoming president.
As the genealogist Megan Smolenyak points out, DeSantis’s great grandmother, Luigia, immigrated from Italy to escape poverty in 1917. She had been living in Italy supported by remittances sent by her husband working the United States (sound familiar?). While crossing the Atlantic on the way to America in February of 1917, the US government passed an immigration act that barred illiterates from entering the country. Records show that Luigia was illiterate. Fortunately the act was not implemented until May, 10 weeks after her arrival to Ellis Island. Luigia slipped in by a scant few weeks. When DeSantis talks about his ancestors immigration, he acts as if it was this very orderly, patient process, when in fact his great grandmother slipped in by a few weeks. Had the timing of the 1917 immigration act been just a few days different, his great grandmother would have been one of the “undesirables” refused entry.
Nowadays, Americans need to hold two opposing thoughts in their head: 1) that most people seeking work or citizenship in the United States are doing so out of desperation, that we depend on them for essential labor, and that given the chance they can make good citizens. 2) that our immigration system doesn’t work very well and that there are lots of things that need repair.
I think that most Americans can do that. But thoughtless Americans can’t.
If the United States is to be saved from bigotry and—let’s not mince words—the celebration and embrace of stupidity, we need to embrace a certain intolerance. That is the intolerance of thoughtless nativist zealotry. This intolerance has nothing to do with elitism and in fact is in a way anti-elitist as it considers the most downtrodden among us.
In one of his letters, Abraham Lincoln put it well:
As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
We’re living in an unfortunate age of that “base alloy of hypocrisy” where those with the most un-American instincts and a denial of our history and demographics parade about with a fake superpatriotism. They wave giant flags hiding narrow minds and soured hearts. None of the sentiment from the words of poet Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Americans need to heartily reject those stupefied bigots enjoying the fresh fruit produced by poor hardworking Latinos one day, and screaming, “Go back to where you came from the next.”
From “3 Quarks Daily.” SEPT 26, 2022. Reprinted with permission.