My small nuclear family has an in-joke about email forwards from my stepfather, a white, working/middle-class retired firefighter in his 80s who grew up on a farm in Western New York in what used to be an agricultural area but is now, like much of the United States, a sprawling suburb. He receives pap from his friends, male and female, that I see as racist and right-wing, but is probably mild, given the hate propaganda available on the web these days. Certain family members and I have taken to hitting “Delete” before reading his email, the safest course of action if we don’t want to waste our time and energy getting angry at an elderly man.
Some of these emails have been more visual, with photos of brown-skinned, mestizo-looking men jeering and looking hostilely at something in the distance, one or two of them grabbing their crotches. I assumed they were day laborers being baited by white anti-immigrant demonstrators in the U.S.’s most charmingly liberal state, Arizona (yes, I’m being heavily sarcastic), and I cringed at how easily propaganda can be created by making victims look like perpetrators.
Other messages my stepfather sends are less crude and appeal more to right-wing nostalgia for that mythical era when all was well in “America.” I received one of these emails about a year ago and couldn’t resist opening and reading it – it was titled “IMMIGRATION” and I knew it would infuriate me, but I had to see what the “opposition” was saying and what my stepfather was passing on.
As some of his email messages have been factually incorrect, I checked Snopes.com, which effectively dissects this particular bit of propaganda:
Often reading Snopes is enough to defuse and diffuse my anger, but this one stuck in my craw because I was wrestling with my own confused feelings and opinions about immigration, privilege, economics, history, and other enormous topics. For months I wanted to write a rebuttal email, but finally gave up. It’s not that my stepfather wouldn’t seriously consider my arguments, or that he’s sending these messages to bait me – in the past when I’ve received racist forwards from him, I’ve directed him to anti-racist activists’ websites and he’s given them a good read.
I felt defeated by widespread racist, anti-immigrant sentiment among whites in the United States; it can seem like an exercise in futility to address these attitudes. But I also realized that it was easy to blame others I considered right-wing without examining my own prejudices about immigration – some mainstream and some based in beliefs that seem popular on the left.
Until a year or so ago I’d always considered myself open-minded about immigration. My attitude was rather laissez-faire – why shouldn’t the United States and other wealthy “Global North” countries welcome as many immigrants as possible? We had room, we had jobs, why not? It was obvious that much of the anti-immigrant sentiment and action in this country was based in racism; no politicians were advancing their careers by talking about deporting “illegal aliens” from Ireland or Canada. As a Latin Americanist (to use an academic label), I wasn’t worried about tens or hundreds of thousands of Spanish-, Portuguese-, and American indigenous-language-speaking people “overrunning” this country; I welcomed these folks and their cultures. And as a student of U.S. history, I knew that the United States had stolen more than half of Mexico’s territory in 1848; my favorite T-shirt slogan when I lived briefly in northern New Mexico was “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” It seemed poetic justice that many Mexicans were returning to what had once been their ancestral land.
More than two years ago I returned to language classes, many years after sporadic Spanish study in high school and grad school. I see now just how classist and racist my own attitudes about immigrants were when I started studying Spanish again. For one thing, I didn’t even think of our instructor, D., as an immigrant, although he told us in the first class that he was from Argentina and Uruguay and had lived in the U.S. for 10 years. This was more probably more language prejudice on my part than racism based on skin color – except when he was exhausted, D’s English was at a near-perfect, native-speaker level, with the slightest hint of a British accent. In addition to teaching Spanish and Portuguese courses, he also taught ESOL, English for Speakers of Other Languages, and TESOL, Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages, and spoke more grammatically correct English than many native speakers, including some of my family members and co-workers. Because I was struggling so hard to improve my Spanish and was blown away by his fluency in English, I “forgot” that he was an immigrant.
A year ago when I went through the language school’s training to become a volunteer ESOL tutor, I had to examine my classism more closely. I began meeting the adult students in the English classes, some of whom had been schoolteachers and were studying English as a third, fourth, or fifth language, and others of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and weren’t fluent readers and writers in their native languages. I realized that D. and I had had educational opportunities that the poor don’t have in any country: I received a tuition waiver for the entire four years of my undergraduate education because my father was an engineering professor at a university that had a tuition exchange program with my college. D. was able to attend a British-run English language high school in Uruguay. Of course, neither of us had any control over the subsequent economic fluctuations in our native countries, but education affords a range of choices and privileges – including legal immigration and citizenship, job availability, access to higher education – that others don’t enjoy. As Earl Shorris writes in his book, Latinos: A Biography of the People: “Education proves to be the most portable wealth, even more valuable than capital; the intellectually rich and the barely literate poor have entirely different experiences in the United States.”
Of course there’s also the white-skin privilege question – would I, a white person of English, German, and Scottish ancestry, have forgotten that D. had immigrated to the U.S. only a decade before if he weren’t of Irish, Italian, and Polish Jewish extraction, if he looked mestizo or “Indian” or “afrodescendente,” as so many Latino/a immigrants look to white folks in the U.S.? Probably not; D. has mentioned that many Argentines of European descent “just blend in with the other white people.”
I discovered as I got to know him and other immigrants at the language school that my classism and racism was obvious and only the tip of the iceberg. What was more hidden, and perhaps more insidious, came from decades of leftist assumptions – well-intentioned, I believe, but value judgments nonetheless.
I was born and grew up in the most powerful empire the world’s ever known, and except for media coverage of the Vietnam War and protests against it, I was fairly insulated from the ravages of imperialism. As a child, my only experiences outside the United States were brief vacations in Ontario – a great delight, but at that time, that part of Canada was similar enough to my home country that nothing seemed terribly “foreign.” As an adult, I’ve toyed a few times with the idea of moving for a while to another country, but I’ve always opted to remain in the U.S. The closest I’ve come to experiencing a different culture was living in Columbus, Ohio, and Taos, New Mexico. (Yes, for a white, working/ middle-class person who came of age in Rochester, New York, Ohio was pretty strange.) By my second year in college, I hungered for a change of venue and new experiences.
I could accurately be called an anti-nationalist; since my college days in the early ’80s, I’ve loved Virginia Woolf’s statement, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world…” As an anti-imperialist leftist active in Latin America solidarity movements since those years, I could understand immigration fueled by the havoc caused by U.S. government policy in the region, and any other geographical area that had been the target of capitalist shock doctrine techniques. Thus a year ago when I began tutoring a young student from Central America, a region I considered tortured by the United States under the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s, it made sense to me that she’d fled the aftermath of her country’s genocidal history, limited economic opportunities, and subsequent brutal gang violence.
But after decades of viewing my country as the Evil Empire, I couldn’t wrap my lefty brain around the idea of immigrants who could probably “make it” in their own countries coming here and becoming U.S. citizens. The administration of every president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt – no, make that Teddy Roosevelt – to Reagan had treated Latin America as the United States of America’s plantation, playground, and back yard, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated recently. (I’m convinced that more recent administrations would have continued to do so, had they not set their sights on the Middle East as the next supplier of fossil fuels, and, given the oil supply there, I don’t think Venezuela is safe yet from U.S. meddling.) Why in the hell would any Latin American want to come here and become a Yanqui? Of course, there’s a different answer for every new immigrant, every new citizen. Of course, on an individual level, it’s none of my business. But as a political creature who wrestles constantly with questions about policy, economics, ethics, art (and on and on), I wanted answers, and a sort of gut-level understanding: what does it feel like to become a U.S. citizen?
I’d been grappling with these questions for months when I ended up in a conversation with D., an Argentine friend of his who had lived in the United States for more than 20 years, and her husband of one year. The husband was trying to get beyond beginning Spanish in preparation for his first visit to Argentina; I’d just returned from my third trip. Husband and I tried to keep up as D. and Friend switched rapidly between English and rioplatense Spanish while they reminisced about the economic rollercoaster that was Argentina in the late 1980s and early ’90s. (I could understand about 85% of the conversation; D. eventually translated everything for us.)
At some point D’s friend said, “I think now it’s finally becoming a real country, but for a long time it just seemed like such a joke.”
Her observation returned to me over and over in the ensuing months. I realized that, as much as I find so many actions of my government appalling, the United States has always felt like a real country, not a laughing stock. As the months went by and I watched the news from Argentina online, I began to wonder what it felt like to come from a nation that seemed embarrassing, with a longer history of instability and dictatorship than of democracy, with crumbling infrastructure and a corrupt judicial system, where hundreds of people at a time are killed in nightclub fires and train accidents, where people can lose their life savings overnight. This sort of thing happens year after year in poorer countries – and of course Argentina is one of the wealthier nations in Latin America and the Global South. No matter how much I hate U.S. government policies, I grew up in a stable country – I think it’s far too conformist and could use some healthy protest and reform, but I’ve never had to worry about military coups – and, until recently, about economic meltdowns. (I believe those of us in the U.S. are about to find out what that’s like – but that’s another blog post.)
Who am I to deny stability and opportunity to people from other nations who want to become citizens of my country? It’s all very well and good for me to fly to Buenos Aires once a year, buy what I please with my dollars, see whatever part of the country I like, and conclude, “Well, this country isn’t so bad.” Would I want to live there for the rest of my life? I doubt it – but I have to recognize that I have that choice, and billions of people around the world do not.
Over the years, I have loathed a good portion of what the United States government and military have done – from torturing Vietnamese citizens and torching their villages to training state terrorists in Latin America to dropping bombs from drones on civilians in northern Pakistan. But I’ve never felt as if I didn’t live in “a real country.” A real empire, a really colonialist, racist, sexist, hateful toward the poor, queers, and immigrants nation – yes, my country has been all too “real.”
In my most cynical moments, I think that where we choose to live – for those of us who have the choice – may boil down to this: which flavor of oppression do we prefer? Vanilla, dulce de leche, or chocolate amargo?