Times have changed. Have you noticed how different things are today?
As a generic white kid growing up in Southern California, I couldn’t help but notice the prejudice local Latino folks endured. My high school was in a mixed neighborhood, and a lot of white classmates felt it imperative to deride Mexicans from the neighborhood. I heard hardworking, proud people stereotyped as indolent or dangerous; they were caricatured on paper with absurdly large farm hats, and pejoratively called beaners after the staple food of Tex-Mex restaurants.
I didn’t protest.
What whites say and do
But across L.A., other whites were behaving better. Clergy, activists, and Hollywood types were boycotting grapes for Cesar Chavez and the UFW for the rights of (mostly Mexican) farm workers. Not everyone joined in. Some years later, I watched local Italian-American growers outside Santa Barbara?where I went to college?get visibly uncomfortable being forced to worship and talk with their Mexican farm workers at some of the bilingual Catholic church gatherings the new bishop had called.
Then I left California and saw that racism and anti-immigrant sentiment were not unique to my home state. The periodic political campaigns to “save American culture” by making communities “English-only” happened elsewhere too. California wasn’t the only place where economic downturns could be handily blamed on poor Hispanic immigrants allegedly taking an unfair share of public services.
But then when did everything seem to change?
Signs are good
The situation certainly looks different to me now. Back home in California, Cesar Chavez has a state holiday instead of the enduring antipathy of government and business leaders; the Mexican-American lieutenant governor speaks proudly of working the fields as a child. Driving north from the Los Angeles International Airport on the San Diego Freeway the first big landmark is the corporate headquarters of Univisi?n , the Spanish language TV network.
Everywhere it seems, literally the signs say Latinos have arrived. Driving down the Hudson Valley from Albany, New York, to NYC, I found the Home Depot had bilingual magnetic placards on every item, English and Spanish. But more than just an occasional Home Depot is going bilingual?airports, malls, public buildings, the “here’s what you do if a customer chokes” posters in restaurants. Is there any American left who doesn’t know what lavese las manos means?
The G.O.P. habla espanol
Even the formerly immigrant-nervous, party of business is going bilingual. Languages have always multiplied among Democrats, but now Republican politicans, eager to capitalize on the legendary family orientation and social conservatism of the Hispanic community, are enrolling in Capitol Spanish classes by the dozens. We’re talking guys from Kansas here.
And what of the proliferation of web sites, magazines, and newspapers in English, Spanish, and Spanglish aimed at Latinos? Who doesn’t want to communicate with this complex cluster of communities?
Times have changed.
And why not? With a burgeoning population (the new “largest minority,” whatever that means) and all kinds of purchasing power, Latinos have become the people for the economic and political establishment to court and know. Everyone is eager to gain their loyalty.
Well, not everyone.
Injustice for the undocumented
If you know any Latino immigrants here in the country sin papeles, undocumented, then you know that such folks often feel totally at the mercy of their employers, who occasionally are not very nice people. Maybe you’ve also heard the stories of sexual harrassment, substandard wages, pay withheld arbitrarily, inhumane treatment even verging on slavery. Treatment isn’t always much better for those here legally who slave away in low-wage service jobs.
Freedom ride redux
A simple plea for basic workers’ rights (and amnesty) was a cornerstone of the recent Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride . Hundreds of immigrants (many undocumented) boarded buses in cities across the nation and cruised cross-country, stopping for demonstrations in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement, eventually finishing their trip in early October at massive rallies in Washington, DC, and New York City.
On one of the buses, a stop in El Paso ran into trouble?the Border Patrol threatened riders with deportation if they could not produce proof of legal status. All the riders refused to produce identification, and eventually the Ride’s powerful friends?politicians, union presidents, and bishops?got on the phone to the INS, and the Border Patrol decided they didn’t need the bad publicity.
The struggle of Latinos isn’t close to being over yet, but on days such as that one, it seems like perhaps at least the balance has shifted favorably from my high school days.