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We think we know why people immigrate
“The border is not a straight line,” and neither is the American immigrant story, observed the author on March 21. He was at Boston College to give the opening talk in a Sesquicentennial symposium that explored the history and abiding issues of human migration.
If, like me, you are the child of immigrants, you will end up very different from your parents in this country. There is a price for becoming an American if your parents are foreign-born, one often paid in long silences in the house. It’s curious how many immigrants are here, in our presence, who don’t talk about the past. They sit quietly, and we know nothing of the long journey that has brought them next to us. But sometimes there are moments of revelation. When the woman who was my seventh-grade teacher was dying, she told me that she was Mexican. This Irish nun, with a group of others like her, came across the ocean in a year when the United States had already filled its Irish quota, and so they all went to Mexico. There they became Mexican citizens. They entered the United States with Mexican passports, and found work at the Sacred Heart School in Sacramento, California. I was educated there by Irish-Mexican women.
In an irony of history, one of the arguments used by nativists in the 1860s against the Irish coming to this country centered on Mexico. War was brewing with Mexico, and the nativists claimed that if you let the Irish in they would unite with the Mexicans as fellow Catholics to overturn the Protestant state. A number of young Irish immigrants in America did go to fight in the Mexican-American War. And as predicted, they changed sides. Mexico called them the San Patricios—the St. Patrick’s Batallion.
Mexico remembers the San Patricios to this day. Every St. Patrick’s Day, the Mexican president salutes the Irish ambassador: ¡Viva Irlanda! In the United States, this story is nowhere told. No one knows it. Why? Because—oh, yes, we used to be Irish a long time ago, but now we’re sort of gringo and we don’t remember very much. We have to be reminded who our grandparents and our great-grandparents were—what this nation was.
The Irish women who educated me were the first people who came to mind when I began to think about migration. More than half of the migrants in the United States today are women. Internationally, the figure is about 49 percent. They are traveling everywhere in the world, and often without a male.
We don’t live in the great civilization of Barack Obama. We live in the great civilization of his mother. In 1942, Ann Dunham is born in Kansas—in blond Kansas—and something in her is hungry for the round world. She wants to know that world. She wants to ask questions of it. She goes to college and becomes an anthropologist. She marries a man from Kenya—a Muslim. White Protestant Kansas marries black Muslim Africa. The marriage doesn’t work. They have a son: Barack.
If you were a lazy male like me, you would think she would say, well, that’s enough of that adventure. I’m going to find Robert Redford. Instead, she goes to Indonesia—the largest Muslim country in the world—and there she marries again.
In 2008, her son is sitting in Hyde Park, in Chicago, being interviewed by Time. This young brown man knows what he wants: to be the first black president. And he says of his mother, she had “a certain recklessness.” Well, I think to myself, something in us has to be reckless if we are going to take the journey she took.
The woman who cuts my hair every three weeks came to the United States from Japan. She is the only member of her middle-class family who left; her two older brothers are still in Japan. Here she got a green card. She got an American husband. And then she got an American divorce, but not before she gave birth to a beautiful daughter, who learned to play the cello. Now that daughter is living in Berlin and is dating a Russian fashion model who lives in Milan (and who sounds like bad news).
I said to this woman, you love your parents. You Skype with them and go back to visit them all the time. Why did you leave, and how could you leave by yourself? She stops cutting my hair, looks at our reflections in the mirror, and says, why did I leave? Just because.
I think a lot of people are like her. When we talk about migration, we forget that it is not always desperation that is moving people from place to place. Sometimes it is also curiosity. Sometimes it is something deep in the heart—as it was deep in Ann Dunham’s heart—about knowing the stranger. I’ve always dreamt of going to that country. I’ve always dreamt of learning that language. I’ve always dreamt of the snow. I’ve always dreamt of the tropics. I’ve always dreamt of someone other than I am. I want not to meet myself in the world. I want to meet the stranger. Just because.
Do not think of migrants only as women. Do not think of migrants only as middle-class. Do not think that only the poor can be migrants.
So many impulses in human beings, besides the empty belly, make us want to move: the desire to be free; the desire to be educated; the desire to be a movie star; the desire to be different from one’s mother; the desire to go to the other side of the mountain to see what else there is. I think the migration of young Muslims into Europe is as much an expression of a religious impulse to extend the holy faith of Allah in the world as it is an expression of financial need.
The very rich are also in migration right now. I know a neighborhood in London—in Knightsbridge—where fabulously rich Russians have come with their ill-gotten or well-gotten billions and bought Edwardian houses, and the neighbors are abuzz. The Russians are in London because they feel safer there. And there are tax benefits to their relocation.
The rich Russians and the rich Chinese and the rich Filipinos and the rich Pakistanis and the rich Brazilians: They are moving all over the world. North of San Diego is a beautiful, wealthy beach town called La Jolla. Mitt Romney and his wife have a house there—the famous house that has an elevator for their cars. Next door, down the street, and all over La Jolla are rich Mexicans. In seminars on migration, nobody talks about the rich Mexicans in La Jolla. You don’t see much of them. They live behind walls. They have children with beautiful teeth. The children play tennis.
But the rich Mexicans in La Jolla are not the reason why we—academics and government officials and migrant rights representatives—gather to discuss migration. We come together because of the leaf blower. Do you hear that noise—the man with a leaf blower at seven in the morning in La Jolla? He must be Mexican—this stocky guy, about 45 years old, making a racket.
We talk about him because we don’t know what to make of him. Is he here legally? Does he have a green card? Does he have a driver’s license? Does he pay taxes? If we get in a car crash with him, does he have insurance? Why is he here? Do I end up paying for the fact that his rich employers pay him less than they would have to pay an American citizen?
I want to say something about the migration of the poor. I have impersonated a journalist for most of my life. And I have stood on the Mexican–U.S. border many nights, particularly in those years when it was easier to cross, and I have seen the world crossing.
I have seen Chinese, Yugoslavs (when they used to be Yugoslavs), and Pakistanis. And I’ve seen Latin Americans of every sort. I have seen Mexican women in high-heeled shoes, holding babies. I have seen kids—not teenagers, kids—coming across, sometimes without adults: Huck Finn, lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest.
I have thought to myself, I am watching a spectacle of human journey. It’s almost biblical. And here I am with a film crew from the BBC. Where is Cecil B. DeMille?
When the Boston Globe or the New York Times reports that people are crossing the border tonight, the migrants are usually identified as Hispanics. But most of the migrants I see crossing look like me, more Indian than Spanish. They don’t look like the people walking down a boulevard in Madrid. They look Indian: the nose, the lips, the eyes—almost Asiatic.
And I think to myself, why do we keep calling them Hispanics? Along the trail that extends from South America into North America, Indians are on the move. They come from Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador. And they look like me: short, not European, maybe mixed blood.
Barack Obama has mixed blood. And we say he’s black. We say of the Indian who has Spanish blood that she is Hispanic. Is it possible that there’s a large Indian migration coming from Latin America—one of the great Indian marches—and we cannot describe it, because we don’t have the words? All we have is Hispanic?
I want to talk about dreaming. what else are writers for, except to talk about dreaming? We know almost nothing. But we know dreams. And when I meet people, I always ask them about their dreams.
South of the border I ask this man, where are you going? He’s wearing running shoes; he’s wearing two pairs of underwear, three shirts, a sweater, and a jacket. He has no suitcase. He says he wants his hands free in case he has to crawl into America.
He has a note. Look. He has a note with an address in Atlanta, Georgia. A job is waiting for him there, to pluck dead chickens. That’s why he’s on the journey.
The journey, which is very dangerous, has taken him from a village in Guatemala through the jungle and across the Mexican border. Mexican thieves and Mexican police (sometimes they are the same people) are alert to prey. It is best to keep quiet, because when some Mexicans hear a Guatemalan accent, all the pity they require of the United States disappears. For immigrants coming through their own country, the Mexicans have none at all.
The man is coming to the United States. He will get to the border tonight. He will have to cross the desert. He has heard a tale of a man becoming so crazed in the desert sunlight that he goes around in circles. Someone finds his body later, where the circles constrict to a corpse.
And I think to myself, it is astonishing how gaudy the dreams of the very poor are: I want to pluck chickens in Atlanta, Georgia. The very poor don’t talk about the Federalist Papers or the Declaration of Independence. They don’t talk about the freedoms of America. They talk about a job. America is a hammer. I’m going to hold a hammer: Bang! I’m going to build something. I’m going to be paid for building. America is a saw. America is a broom. I’m going to push America, the assurance of it, in my fist.
When I grew up in California, all the interesting people were migrants. They were from Illinois and Kansas and Nebraska. They were what the sociologists call “internal immigrants.” They were people who were getting away from their in-laws. All the famous Californians were from somewhere else: Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan. The beauty queen from Nebraska who was so pretty went to California, and Hollywood used her, or didn’t, and she ended up a manicurist or maybe she ended up cutting hair. The excitement of changing your life, trying something new, going someplace different, this migrant’s excitement has always been part of California.
John Steinbeck’s great novel The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of people who migrated to California from Arkansas and Oklahoma during the Depression. Californians called them Arkies and Okies. They crossed the country on Highway 66 to work on farms. Their trucks were steaming and crowded with bodies and mattresses. When Hollywood turned the book into a movie, the people who worked on the movie were internal immigrants, too. John Ford, the director, came to Hollywood from Maine. Henry Fonda, who played Tom Joad, came to Hollywood from Nebraska. And so it went.
When I was a young man and out of the closet, San Francisco began to fill with sexual refugees—young gay men who arrived in the city on Greyhound buses. Now most of them are dead—a whole generation gone. Some had come a long way, sometimes from foreign countries, to become themselves. That’s migration, too. And so is this: I’m a girl in Pakistan and I’m going to go to school. I’m going to end up with my head shot by some fanatic. But now I’m well and I’m going to go to school today in Birmingham, England. I am intent on it.
Something happened in America in the 19th century. The boats came sagging into New York Harbor and we saw the immigrants, and we didn’t like them. They smelled from their journey. We couldn’t understand most of them when they spoke. The grandmothers were all dressed in black, mourning somebody who had died 40 years before, and they had no expression in their eyes. We didn’t know what to make of them. What should we call these people?
A century before that, Benjamin Franklin—my childhood hero—said he was not sure we should call Germans white people. Southern Germans especially, he said, are so “swarthy.”
And the Irish: The Irish were not white when they came to America. They had to earn the designation. Read Noel Ignatiev’s book How the Irish Became White (1995).
The next generation—my generation, the first generation—didn’t have an accent anymore. We were changing our names; we had names like Skip and Troy. And America said, you know, these kids aren’t so bad. We recognize these kids.
And then the grandchildren came along. They were building and inventing, and they were fully at home in America. They didn’t know Ireland. They didn’t know Sicily. They didn’t know Germany. And America said, well done!
Something happened in the intellectual history of this country in those years, when America looked at the offspring of immigrants and began to see its own meaning in their progress. Native-born Americans began to say, You know, you can come here with nothing, and you can end up running a corporation.
That’s the American dream. And because of the dream, people who were born here started saying about themselves, we are all immigrants.
What’s happened now in America is that we don’t believe in the dream anymore. When we see the immigrants coming, the poor ones, we don’t say that they are us. We don’t expect them to change their lives, and we don’t expect our own lives to change, because our lives are not changing.
We’re no longer progressing, one generation with a firmer footing than the one before. Even a few years ago, the reason a student went to college was: I’m going to get a job when I finish that will be better than what my parents have, who are helping to pay my way through.
Now we’re not so sure. We’re not so sure that the line goes necessarily upward.
Young immigrants—the children of undocumented immigrants—are talking about a Dream Act. I like that word, dream, as you know. But do not be fooled. In the opinion of most Americans, I think, the immigrant—he poor immigrant—is a drag. Why can’t they wait in line like those middle-class people all over the world who wait for their visas? They stand in lines in Jakarta. They stand in lines in Lille, France. Why don’t the leaf blowers stand in line? How can they cheat?
I am a registered Republican, and the Republican in me says you can’t have a country without borders—not in this world. You’d better know who’s coming across your line tonight. And yet the American in me says, let’s have immigration reform tomorrow. Let’s come up with a bill that will take care of the 11 million undocumented migrants we have here now—let’s sign it tomorrow morning at nine. And the Republican says, Tomorrow morning, at 9:15, new people will be coming across the line. The poor will always be coming. And what do we do with them?
I remember talking with a tiny Mexican nun who runs La Casa de los Pobres, which serves the poor in various ways in Tijuana, Mexico. La Casa gets much of its money from German philanthropies. The Germans are always complaining, she said. They say, Sister, you are not solving the problem of poverty in Tijuana; all you are doing is dealing with it.
This is the same complaint that was lodged against Mother Teresa: that she only picked up the bodies of the untouchables as they were dying and bathed them, but she didn’t end India’s poverty.
Well, I don’t know how to solve Mexico’s problems, the nun said, and besides which, at 11 this morning people are going to start forming a line here for food. Today I have used the Germans’ money for beans and rice and lard. You understand? There is no solution. The poor are multiplied by the poor are multiplied by the poor.
At some level, migration calls us to discuss our spiritual values. I don’t say that these values are necessarily Christian. I’m thinking about a Jew named Jesus, who tells the most interesting story one day to other Jews about a good Samaritan. It’s an astonishing story, because the Samaritans were a different tribe altogether, and the Samaritan is the hero of the story.
With the election of an Argentine pope, what we have learned about the Vatican is that those creaky old cardinals can see the future. They see that the future is not Europe—at least, not the Europe of churches that are monuments to emptiness and tourism. They see that the fastest growing region of Catholicism in the world is Africa. They see that the capital of Catholicism now is in the Americas, but not in North America—in Latin America.
We North Americans have always thought of ourselves as God-blessed. And now we find out that the really important spiritual activity is not here but there, on the other side of the wall we built.
I can’t see over the wall. I can’t see what’s on the other side. But I can hear the singing.
Something is coming this way from the south that is not, as some of my fellow Republicans have claimed, a criminal energy. It is a religious energy, and it is coming, in many cases, as a hymn. Evangelical Protestantism is spreading at such a rate now in countries like Brazil—the largest Catholic country in the world—that, by the year 2070, Latin America could be in its majority Protestant, and not simply Protestant but evangelical Protestant.
Priests from Africa are working in Paris, because there aren’t enough European priests to fill the rectories. Nuns from Costa Rica are in Los Angeles. And yet when we think of immigrants, we think only illegal.
I met some young men in a group called Victory Outreach in Tijuana. Victory Outreach is an evangelical church that deals with youths living along the border who have serious involvement with drugs and gangs. These are kids who have tattoos climbing up their necks.
I met one group member who looked like an Indian from a 16th-century tableau. He said he was coming to the United States to convert the United States to Protestantism. Five centuries after Columbus, an Indian is coming to convert the United States to Protestantism.
Those Americans, he said, are so sad. He said, they seem broken to me. I want to save their souls.
Richard Rodriguez is a contributing writer and editor at New America Media and the author of the autobiographical trilogy that includes Hunger of Memory (1982), Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992), and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002). He received a Peabody Award in 1997 for his series “Essays on American Life,” which aired on PBS NewsHour. His essay here is drawn from a talk he delivered on March 21 in Robsham Theater, the keynote to the Sesquicentennial Symposium “Migration: Past, Present, and Future” organized by Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice.