Let those without immigrant origins throw the first stone

Copyright 2018 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published in a shorter version as a guest column on April 29, 2018 in the San Antonio Express-News)

     Many people in the United States, painting with a broad brush, look upon Mexican-Americans with a jaundiced view.

     This misconception has been fueled by real and imagined immigration issues in the past and most recently by President Donald Trump’s perverted views of immigrants, including his attacks on those trying to get into this country from the “shitholes”―his word―of the world.

     Trump and those who agree with him have obsessed over the Wall, DACA, and the so-called criminals and rapists flocking into the U. S. illegally.

     As an example, the Trump administration has targeted a transnational gang known as MS-13. The president seizes upon the gang’s violence as symbolic of the effects of illegal immigration when in fact not all of MS-13 members are here without documents. Moreover, most law enforcement agencies at all levels consider Trump’s campaign against MS-13 clearly out of proportion to its national threat.

     Trump’s focus is nothing less than racial prejudice in its purest form, even though at times it is more subtle than flagrant. To correct this misconception, one first needs to know an important part of our country’s history.

     I’ve been surprised, as well as disappointed, at how many U. S. citizens know so little about this part of American history. And despite the numerous physical landmarks that serve as reminders, many Americans don’t realize how Spain and Mexico once occupied a major part of our 50 states.

     These landmark reminders are pervasive. Consider cities: Los Angeles (The Angels); San Francisco (St. Francis); Sacramento (the sacrament); Santa Fe (holy faith); San Antonio (St. Anthony); El Dorado (the golden or gilded one) in Arkansas. Consider states: Florida (flowery); Nevada (snowfall); Colorado (red). Even the name “California” originates from the Conquistadores and is derived from the word Califia, a mythical island paradise described in a Spanish book written in 1510.

     More than 100 years before the Pilgrims set foot in this country, explorers from Spain, led by Ponce de Leon, in 1513 disembarked on the northeast coast of what was to become Florida. Other Conquistadores (the conquerors) followed throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, encountering the Mayans and Aztecs in Mexico (New Spain), and the Apache, Comanche, Pueblo, Navajo, and other indigenous tribes to the north.

     Spaniards explored and claimed all of the lands that were to become the southwestern United States, including Texas. Some of these lands were designated the Territory of New Mexico and were later divided into the states of Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. These explorers also travelled westward into lands that became California and ventured into what is now Texas and beyond through lands now known as the U. S. South.

     In 1536, Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to cross the North American continent some 84 years before the Pilgrims landed. Then came Fray Marcos de Niga, a priest, in 1539, Coronado in 1540, and Juan de Onate in 1598. Many others followed. Almost 100 years later, in 1692, Don Diego de Vargas peacefully reoccupied the city of Santa Fe, which had been captured by the Pueblo tribes during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680―the time when native Americans first succeeded in retaking the lands seized from them many years before by the Spanish government.

     Spain didn’t lose control of its lands in the western United States until 1821, after the Mexican War of Independence. The newly formed Mexican government took over.

     As a military general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna helped gain Mexico’s independence from Spain. Later, as President of Mexico, he led the fight to retain Mexico’s territory, much of which was lost during the Texas Revolution of 1836.

     For many years before the revolution, Santa Anna not only allowed but encouraged Americans from southern and eastern states to migrate and settle in Texas. Santa Anna’s policy was guided by two factors: increase in trade to help Mexico’s economy and defense against Comanche attacks.

     The Texans mounted a strong, armed resistance to the centralist government of Mexico, which was preceded by a number of political and cultural clashes between the Mexican government and the increasingly large immigrant population of American settlers entering Mexico.

     Texas didn’t exist as an independent republic for long. It was annexed as the 28th state of the United States in 1845, which led to the Mexican-American War. That war ended with the Mexican Cession of 1848, in which defeated Mexico ceded its huge land holdings to the United States.

     Once Mexico lost control of its territories in the southwestern United States and in California, the influx of American settlers increased. This gave rise to additional demographic changes that, in turn, led to the economic and social interactions, mounting tensions, and physical conflicts among three groups: Mexican-Americans, Native-Americans, and Euro-Americans migrating from the eastern part of the United States in growing numbers.

     In 1875, Colorado was elevated to statehood, but New Mexico was turned down. Race figured prominently in Congress’ vote against New Mexico’s bid.

     During congressional debates, some legislators strongly opposed to statehood referred to Mexican-Americans, as well as Native-Americans, as savages, barbarians, and illiterate and inferior races unfit for self-government and therefore unworthy of citizenship.

     That was far from the first time those or similar slurs had been expressed. For many years, Mexican-Americans were referred to as lazy, backward, and illiterate. They were also “charged with not wanting to learn to speak English or participate in the American way of life. Terms such as “greasers”, “loafers”, and “rabble” were often used against them.

     As far as I’ve been able to determine, none of the members of Congress who voted against statehood had met a Mexican-American or knew enough about them and their history to use such derogatory terms or to label them as an inferior race or ethnic group.

     Even the newspapers of the time weighed in with biases against New Mexico’s statehood, the New York Times asserting that “its people are not us.”

     It wasn’t until 37 years later, in 1912, that New Mexico and Arizona were accepted into statehood.

     Although Mexican-Americans today aren’t treated as they were in the days when Euro-Americans settled among them, former biases against them by others continue―biases akin to xenophobia. Such prejudice isn’t as open or flagrant as in the past, but signs of it continue.

     Trump and others exemplify how this prejudice gives rise to unfounded fears. Others, either consciously or subconsciously, continue to contrast themselves with those of a different skin color. This is plain racial tolerance.

     But mere toleration falls far short of acceptance and respect.

     It’s time we become aware of our inner prejudices and unfounded dislikes that have persisted far too long. We must give more than lip service to our founder’s beliefs that all of us are created equal. It’s time to genuinely accept “equal justice under law”, the words etched in large bold letters above the entrance to the highest court in the land―the United States Supreme Court.

     Those four, simple words stand for what distinguishes us from so many other nations―the rule of law, which we should honor and respect. We can begin by taking a good look at how we treat others, citizens and non-citizens alike. We should value what we have in common, rather than focus on our differences, including skin color or beliefs.

     Our prejudices are deeply rooted in spite of the fact that Mexican-Americans have lived as U. S. citizens for generations.

     For too long, many non-Hispanics have viewed all “Mexicans” in this country as both a single ethnic group with mostly lower levels of education and lower levels of income. All those assumptions are false. Each of us must be judged on merit as individuals, not as a group.

     Yet, most Mexican-Americans born here, like my parents, and their parents before them―and me―havent ’escaped prejudices. To compound these problems, all of us who share the same ethnicity are often judged as one of them, the “them” referring to illegal or even documented immigrants who arrived in recent years.

     At times, the prejudice isn’t overt. And often, it’s well hidden.

     It’s true that a small percentage of illegal immigrants over the years have been arrested, charged and in some cases convicted of crimes after they arrived in this country. But in this respect, Mexican nationals are no different from non-Hispanic citizens and recent immigrants.

     These presumptions about criminality ignore that most immigrants, including so-called “illegals” from Mexico, are good, hardworking and law-abiding individuals. They come to this country with hopes of improving their lives and contributing to this nation. To consider them unworthy of our concern, understanding and fair treatment is to ignore our country’s history and our own ancestries.

     From the beginning of our nation, and even during colonization before―except for people with American Indian ancestry―this is a land of immigrants. Let those without immigrant origins cast the first stone.

     The histories of all of us with immigrant origins should be a curriculum requirement in secondary and college education. That would enlighten all of “us” and warn us against falsely stereotyping new arrivals as “them.”