“We Latinos are the Jews of the 21st century,” the sign said.
It was carried by a marcher at the mammoth immigration reform rally in Los Angeles on May 1, one of several such events nationwide that are now being called harbingers of a new civil rights movement.
I can relate to that slogan. As a Jew growing up not far from the southern U.S. border in the 1950s and 1960s, I often felt like a Latino of the 20th century—and later the 21st.
Houston, my hometown, had many Mexican Americans when I was young but few Jewish Americans. As a member of the second group—darkish skinned, dark haired, brown-eyed–living among blonde, blue-eyed Baptists and Methodists, I was frequently asked, “Honey, what are you?” by my friends’ parents. A truthful answer sometimes led to painful reactions. One mother forbade her daughter to visit my house again. One said Oh, now she understood why I was so clever. A kid at school rifled through my hair looking for horns.
So, when I got “What are you?” I sometimes didn’t answer. Then the question was posed more directly.
“Honey, you look….Spanish. Are you Spanish?”
“Spanish” didn’t mean Spain, of course. In Texas it was the polite word for Mexican, which was polite for messkin, which was polite for greezer and beaner. I heard the question so often that by the time I was a teenager I was…Spanish. I’d gone to a school in Mexico, a day’s drive from Houston, and become almost fluent in the language. Like the girls in the town where I studied, I got my ears pierced by nuns in a convent.
When I got home my mother was angry about this convent business. Only old immigrant women from Eastern Europe had pierced ears, she huffed, and if I wasn’t careful with mine I would end up like her mother, with ugly, pendulous holes. And speaking of jewelry, she segued into a story about my grandmother fleeing the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, the three days of anti-Jewish rioting in Bessarabia which resulted in forty-seven Jews killed and over 700 houses sacked and destroyed.
My grandmother had died before I was born, and I’d never heard of Kishinev, but my mother described her sneaking over the border in some peasant’s wagon, dressed in a peasant woman’s jewelry—a necklace with a big, glorious crucifix. That’s what saved her, my mother said: scheming to look like someone else, someone who truly belonged.
Twenty-five years later, in the early 1990s, I was living in El Paso, Texas, a big border city abutting Mexico. As a rule, the El Paso police couldn’t ask people for their immigration papers. But federal agents could—the Border Patrol. They combed the city and had carte blanche to demand papers if they could “articulate” why they thought someone was foreign.
Witnessing these stops and interrogations, I couldn’t stop thinking of my grandmother in Kishinev. El Paso’s population was seventy per cent Latino when I lived there. I started watching and talking with my Mexican and Mexican-American friends and neighbors, studying how they used textiles, shoes, makeup and hair to try to sneak in, to fit in, to be left in peace and belonging.
The Border Patrol did the same thing, for their own ends. As a reporter for the local and national media, I asked many of the officers how they could tell someone was illegal. Here are some answers I got:
“A man who wears a beard in summer is illegal.”
“A woman in those cheap, Chinese brocade shoes with rubber soles needs to be questioned.”
“Nail polish that’s too bright.”
“Boots with the heels cut on a slant.”
“Carrying a plastic shopping bag with a checkered design.”
“Not dressed nice enough.”
“Dressed too nice.”
After a while I became so concerned with the attitudes these answers reflected that I organized an NGO with a telephone hotline. My organization put our contact information on wallet cards and soon we got calls from people—including native-born citizens– reporting they’d been stopped and questioned by the Border Patrol, apparently for looking poor and desperate as much as for looking Mexican.
Several people made these reports to me personally. They were a group of women who crossed the border illegally three times a week to go door to door in my neighborhood, vending fresh fruit and vegetables from Mexico. I had visited them in their houses across the river. The houses were cardboard. They hoped to make them cement by scheming and braving and working. To get a taste of what these women went through, I decided to become a reverse version of my grandmother: a belonger who, for a few hours, would give up belonging. I set out to put my look together.
I didn’t need a necklace. What I needed was my crummiest corduroy pants with the cord rubbed off at the knees. I needed two sweaters from Goodwill, both pilled, an old baseball cap, and ratty running shoes. I put on my poverty-looking clothes and looked like my friends. I met them on the Mexico side and we proceeded to the Rio Grande.
We crossed the river; it was icy and filled with tads of garbage and a swimming rat. We ran across Interstate Highway 10 clutching preschoolers and an infant. We crawled through a drain pipe and when we reached the end and emerged, I was amazed to discover we were in my neighborhood, just two blocks from my big, beautiful house.
We trudged from home to home and the vendors called in Spanish, “Limes! Limes! Avocados!” One of my neighbors came to the door. In my belonging life she knew me as DEBBIE NATHAN. But with my threadbare clothes and friends she didn’t recognize me at all. I was just an illegal among illegals.
No Border Patrol vans passed that afternoon, and fortunately the neighbor was not a law enforcement agent, in occupation or in spirit. It was late December and she offered homemade tamales as gifts; then, looking at each of us in turn, she distributed paper money of the smallest denomination. “Here, Honey,” she said to me in Spanish, pressing a dollar bill in my hand. “Buy your children something for Christmas.”
That was the early 1990s and I thought of my grandmother and her crucifix. Today is 2010, just after the big demonstrations, and I think of my grandmother and Arizona.
DEBBIE NATHAN is a New York City-based journalist who writes frequently for CounterPunch. She can be reached at email@example.com