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Excuse Me, I Am Not Your Wetback

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A 1993 hunger strike at UCLA that led to creation of the César E. Chávez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies was modeled on a 1987 student action, says Dr. Álvaro Huerta. Photo © 1993 by Abraham Torres/RumbleSkout3.com

Editorial by Dr. Álvaro Huerta

To borrow—more like crib—from the great James Baldwin’s writings and speeches, I declare to America’s racists that I am not your “wetback.” I am a man. I am a Chicano. I am a proud son of Mexican immigrants—the salt of the earth.

I say these words from a place of privilege, having earned advanced degrees from world-class universities. These include a Ph.D. (city & regional planning) from UC Berkeley, as well as an M.A. (urban planning) and a B.A. (history)—both from UCLA. I also say these words because my personal and family backgrounds were indeed plagued by abject poverty, violence and a sense of hopelessness.

I spent the earliest years of my life in a Mexican slum (Colonia Libertad, Tijuana, Baja California) and my formative years in a violent American barrio (Ramona Gardens public housing projects) in a forgotten corner of Boyle Heights sometimes referred to as Big Hazard. Please understand that when I say that I am not your “wetback,” it doesn’t just apply to me.

It also applies to the millions of resilient people of Mexican origin in this country, whose undeniable and irrevocably deep ties to the land under my feet and yours preceded those of the predominantly English-speaking invaders, free-loaders, carpetbaggers, gold-diggers, slave-traders and—to be truthful—a substantial number of honest, hard-working homesteaders and subsistence farmers lured by the promise of cheap land, easy riches and God-blessed, practically-free-for-the-taking entitlements heralded by Manifest Destiny.

As a consequence, the violent, bloody annexation of Mexico’s territory—half of it usurped by 1848 through a trumped up war of avarice—predicated 170 years of state violence, psychological pain, humiliation and exploitation experienced by Mexican Americans (or Chicanas/os) and Mexicans—my people—here in el norte,  because the truth is, “we did not cross the border, the border crossed us,” to quote a common refrain that makes makes a certain segment of the U.S. population increasingly nervous and—some have warily suggested—trigger-happy in the worst, xenophobic way possible.

Yet, others might argue that I don’t speak for the estimated 35.8 million people of Mexican origin residing in this country (Pew Research Center, 09/18/17). Actually, at our monthly Mexican juntas or meetings—where we meet around 3 a.m. at “hidden” or “invisible” locations, like taco trucks, office buildings, auto-mechanic shops and Mexican restaurants—I was unanimously elected (absent the “coconuts”—brown on the outside, white on the inside)—to directly challenge and chastise the estimated 63 million Americans (and others) who voted for President Donald J. Trump.

Let’s not forget what the “Hustler-in-Chief” or “Orange-Man-in-the-White House” uttered on June 16, 2015—with his immigrant wife by his side—as the foundation of his then-presidential campaign: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”  

In attempting to distance themselves from Trump’s racist argument or frame, many so-called Mexican American leaders responded by saying, “We are not all drug dealers, criminals and rapists.” In doing so, as the linguist Dr. George Lackoff hypothesizes in his book, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, this only reinforces Trump’s racist framing. “Frames,” Lackoff theorizes, “are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”

According to Lackoff, we must take great care in our efforts to refute malevolent, violent and dehumanizing frames, because our very refutations are often couched in the same language or terminology, ergo, “when we negate a frame, we invoke the frame.” In order to avoid this built-in pitfall, instead of accepting the subjective, unproven and consequently false tenets of Trump’s racist frame about Mexicans, we must reject its entire premise, giving it no credence.

Unfortunately, in trying to earn acceptance and validation by what they perceive to be the dominant culture, too many so-called Mexican American leaders and average citizens alike will say something like, “I’m an American. My dad served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. We’re nothing like those bad hombres.” Again, this type of language or terminology only reinforces the racist frame or frames perpetuated against brown people by Trump and other bigoted citizens posing as patriots or “true Americans” who hold similar views, yet have refined their use of language, ie., Vice President Mike Pence, clever dissimulators who are more accurately described as closeted or  “stealth” racists.

They studiously avoid racial references and decry the “illegality” of immigration, a dog-whistle tactic that negates the 210-year presence of actual Mexicans on soil now proclaimed to be American as well as the several thousand-year presence of native peoples. This also allows them to uniformly deny the one scientifically unassailable genetic truth that looms large as the bronze-skinned elephant in ALL the rooms: the great majority of Mexican and Chicana/o people are, in fact, of primarily indigenous ancestry. 

Chicanas/os and Mexicans should unite and reject all racist rhetoric, actions and policies by American leaders and millions of its citizens against our people. To do so, we must embrace our ethnic heritage with pride and speak out against all forms of discrimination in public and private spheres.

We must also reject the labels, categories and typologies that divide us: educated versus uneducated; citizen versus undocumented; and undocumented youth (good immigrants or “the innocent ones”) versus undocumented parents (bad immigrants or “the sinners”), “gente-fiers” versus neighborhood “defenders,” Chipster vs. Xipster, norteño versus sureño, etc.

Moreover, we must also recognize that we come from a rich history in which indigenous roots are prevalent, where we don’t need to be apologetic or embarrassed of our origins and our socio-economic status—past and present. I must admit that as a teenager, I was embarrassed by and rejected my working-class Mexican parents on at least two occasions. The shame I felt manifested noticeably for the first time when I was 13-years-old and was taken alongside my older brother Salomón—now an internationally renowned and critically acclaimed visual artist—by my immigrant father to Malibu, California, to try our hands as day laborers.

It was my mother’s idea. She wanted us to learn the value of education by experiencing hard labor. After a two-hour bus ride from the Eastside to the Westside, we found ourselves on a freezing street corner, where I saw my father chase luxury cars, “begging” the rich white guys to let him and his lazy Chicano sons work on their beachfront lawns for the day. I wanted to run towards the ocean and disappear from sheer mortification. Luckily for me, I didn’t know how to swim.

The second time it happened, I was already 17 and in the middle of a Freshman Summer Program (FSP) at UCLA, attending classes as one of the few Chicanas/os in the nearly 50-year history of the public housing projects where I was raised to have ever earned acceptance into an elite university. I felt so ashamed of what my parents did for a living—my mother was a domestic worker or “doméstica,” and my father did odd jobs—that I refused to share their respective occupations during classroom introductions.

It didn’t help that we lived in the projects (with subsidized rent) and depended on government aid. Free school lunches. Reagan cheese. Medical. Monetary aid. Food Stamps. And with respect to the latter, the “estampillas” were, essentially, an example of how the poor operate with fake money, living a real-life Monopoly board game where we were always the losers—went Directly to Jail, Did Not Pass Go or Collect $200. God forbid we would ever be even allowed to dream of someday owning a Baltic Avenue single family residence, much less a Park Place hotel.

At UCLA, I became involved as a student activist with MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) and changed my major from math to history. I began developing a nascent political consciousness by studying the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the long history of exploitation against my people. There, I learned to be proud of my Mexican parents and working-class roots. I owe this to the teachings of Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones–brilliant historian and activist—and my own independent research efforts.

As a student, I also learned from my on-campus activist efforts as the co-organizer of a student hunger strike in support of undocumented students which took place from November 11-19, 1987. For the record, this action set a precedent for similar hunger strike protests led by other Chicana/o students in subsequent years, including one held at UCLA from May 24 to June 7, 1993, another at UC Santa Barbara (April 27 – May 5, 1994) and additional ones staged at various other colleges and universities.

The hunger strike of 1993 proved more successful than our own in some respects and eventually led to the creation of UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies.  But it is important, from a historical perspective, to remind my fellow Chicana/o historians and activists of the correlation between the hunger strike of 1987 and the one that followed six years later.  The significance of the former as the model upon which the latter was predicated, despite disparate objectives cannot be overstated. Dr. Gómez-Quiñones can attest to this historical fact.

Moving forward, Chicanas/os and Mexicans must be fearless. We must take instruction from our long history of resistance, beginning with the Aztec battles against the murderous crew of greedy adventurers led by conquistador Hernán Cortes and extending well into the 20th Century with the Chicana/o Movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

More recently it has been reflected in the fight by Latino immigrant gardeners in opposition to a draconian city law in the late 1990s, the brave undocumented  Dreamer youth struggles of the present and the efforts to legalize street vendor micro-businesses. We must also pursue life, liberty and labor without seeking validation from a dominant society which manipulates a need among many of our people for acceptance and acknowledgment to create rivalry and competition. By creating a false culture of scarcity whereby it is understood that only one or two seats at the table of power and decision-making will be allotted to minorities, those in power create disunity and pit people of color against one another.
  
What we should understand is that our table is richer, more abundant and overflowing with food that will always be better than what is served at their exclusive enclaves. We welcome guests of different hues and with diverse accents, and, when we run out of chairs, we run to the party store and rent more to accommodate our Blaxican nephews and nieces as well as our WASP brother-in-law from Washington D.C. and our Asian sister-in-law from the Bay Area. In short, we must always walk with our heads held high, demanding to be treated with dignity and respect.

Álvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm, (San Diego State University Press, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley. He also holds an M.A. in urban planning and a B.A. in history—both from UCLA.

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Brooklyn & Boyle is a print and online magazine dedicated to Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The publication features Brooklyn & Boyle stories from the Greater Eastside LA arts scene, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, South Pasadena, Cypress Park, Arroyo Seco, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock, places every bit as creative and cultured as one another while aware and active in support of authentic arts and creative projects which support community integrity and respect for the history and heritage of the many Eastside neighborhoods.

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