Easy questions are a bore. Challenging questions are interesting questions. But the best questions are those that just beg for and defy answers. Here’s one: How come Mexican/Chicano/Hispanic/Spanish/Indio/Mestizo immigrants are different? How come the rest of our voluntary immigrants have done their best to meld themselves into our language and culture while those people stubbornly resist? From what comes their recalcitrance, their ignorance, their pride? Why (or is it how?) are the different?
Put that way, it sounds drily academic. It is anything but. Perhaps it should be phrased, “How dare they (along with their aunts, uncles, cousins) violate our borders, live off our Welfare system, put their children (and their crime) into our schools, force those schools to be bi-lingual to accommodate them, overload our medical services, (etc, etc,…) yet stubbornly stay apart while sending our money back to Mexico?” Put that way, it has some of the baffled anger that “The Immigration Problem” has acquired.
I’ve got some ideas about the puzzle. I’ve also talked it over with some Mexican friends (both citizens of Mexico and Americans of “Hispanic” descent). Oddly enough, it interests them as much as it does us. They, too, have no final answers. But they have contributed a different perspective on the problem. Let me throw a few of these ideas into the pot (or should that be olla?).
For the broadest part of American immigrants (those we consider typical. I.e., part of the 19th to early 20th century flood), immigration meant making an almost unimaginable break from the past and a leap into the unknown. It meant leaving one’s own land, culture and language to journey across a vast, irrevocable ocean to someone else’s country,. where all things would be new and strange.
None of that is applicable to the Mexicans.
For one thing, they are not exactly leaving anywhere. It may surprise us, but they learn from school and tradition that America stole their Northern provinces in two wars. Since theft does not imply a valid change of ownership, those provinces must, in moral truth, still be a part of Mexico. So how could they be leaving Mexico?
Next, without great oceans to cross, the trip to El Norte does not mean contemplating the same wrenching, irreversible choice that faced the others who came. Those others had to face the psychological divorce of having to abandon all the familiar things that define you in the hope of becoming something new. A Mexican can simply decide to take a furlough from his beloved home, where there is little work and little money, to hike across the river to a place where there is plenty of both.
Then, too, those other immigrants left their homelands way the heck back there, halfway around the world. And the culture of their Old Country, its language and its affairs must have seemed even further away than that. For a Mexican (and by only a little extension, all others from South of us) the Mother country is always just over there, across the border. Even if you are in New York, you know that if you just head Southwest, Mexico will be the first border you hit. Somehow that makes everything about it much more present, more local, more real.
Finally, Mexican nationalism and identity is shaped in a startling complete way by her relationship with America (Note that should be Los Estados Unidos de la America del Norte. We blithely assume that we are the only ones who count in this part of the hemisphere, something the Canadians are churlish enough to dispute, too.). There is an old joke, repeated as much South of the border as North of it: Poor Mexico. So far from God. So near to the United States. To be Mexican or, for that matter, Hispanic, is to be NOT norteamericano. It is to be one of those historically oppressed, not one of the oppressors. To become too American is to be switch sides, to commit treason.
As I said, it is a question that begs and defies answers. The more I work on it, the more my “answers” begin to resemble a tautology.
Question: “Why aren’t Mexicans like the other immigrants?”
Answer: “Because Mexicans aren’t like the other immigrants.”