I received an interesting email in response to an electronic conversation titled “The Trip.” One of the highest ranking Latino veterans responded to me. It was a courteous rejoinder although it was meant to be a subtle put down. The vet contended that he had never had trouble in this country because among other things his parents tutored him and made sure his grades were high. He never called himself a Mexican American but an American of Mexican descent.
The writer had spent much of his life as a high ranking officer in the army air force and was proud of his service.
As is my custom, I thought about what he was saying and tried to understand why our views were so different. I have always been interested in epistemology that studies knowledge (although a stint at Loyola University nearly suffocated this fascination).
I decided that the difference between me and the writer rested on how we acquired our knowledge. From googling him, I realized that he relied heavily on absolutes. My approach to knowledge because of my academic training has always been more active and more adaptive.
Just from the thumbnail narrative I could see similarities and differences in how we looked at life. Although I was not poor, my father was a master tailor; I never had the luxury of either parent helping me with my homework. My mother did not complete the first grade and my father had a fourth grade education.
Moreover, location had formed our views of this country. My maternal family
with whom I was raised were border people whereas his family came from way under, from a state with secessionist pretensions.
What we did in the armed forces also conditioned our views. I doubt whether he ever ate with the plebes, or met what we at the time called hillbillies. The two years that I spent in the service were marred by race riots – if you were on leave you went to the black, white or Puerto Rican joints. Fights between the races were common.
These experiences informed the way I looked at life. When I was an undergrad the education professors were always talking about people building walls around themselves. The finger was pointed at Mexican-Americans who hyphenated their identity.
My friend, the American of Mexican descent, bought into this notion. He told me “[t]he Chinese, French, Germans and other races that have become American Citizens do not deem to need special Studies,” which is just not the case. But again I have studied the history of immigration. My stint in the army and teaching at a barrio school showed me firsthand the warts in American education.
I came to realize that Mexicans and blacks were not building the walls but society was. There was something in American culture that built walls around those who are different.
Symbolic of our walled society is the Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) that was constructed beginning in 1961. It was guarded by towers and armed men. Those who built the wall claimed that the wall was built to keep the people from fascist elements in West Germany. That it was built to stop the massive emigration and defection that caused a massive brain drain on East Germany.
Our side condemned the Berlin Wall and referred to it as the “Wall of Shame.” It came over time to symbolize the “Iron Curtain” that separated the Western and Eastern Blocs.
The Berlin Wall
Ironically those pointing fingers at Iron Curtain view the walls constructed to keep Mexicans out through another prism. Instead of a wall they call it a border fence. They rationalize that it is to check the flow of the “illegal Movement” into the United States.
The walls have been built in stages, mostly during three large “Operations:” Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas and Operation Safeguard in Arizona. The latter is the most insidious with the migration of people and drugs purposely funneled through this corridor. The strategy is that if the wall does not get them: the desert, the heat or a lynch mob of vigilantes will.
More than a billion dollars has been spent in building and maintaining the wall. While the reasons are a violation of American sovereignty and the War on Drugs, the result is keeping poor people for whom hunger has no boundaries out.
It has insidiously been called the Great Wall of Mexico. It is reinforced by the most modern detection devices.
Most Americans are complicit. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll indicates that the American people favor the building of the wall by a 51-to-37 percent margin.
The causes of the migration are obvious. In 2005, the per-capita income differential between the US and Mexican workers was $30,000 to $4,000 annually. No doubt, conditions in Mexico have worsened as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S. War of Drugs.
At the end of the day, a select group of people are profiting from the construction and maintenance of the Wall as well as the incarceration of thousands of people. It has also provided scores of politicos with hot button hate issues.
Physically the Berlin and Arizona Walls resemble each other.
The U.S. Wall
The reactions of Americans to the Walls, however, are markedly different. In the summer of 1963, President Kennedy visited Berlin and told the world “Let Them Come to Berlin” if they wanted to understand:
“There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.”
The Berlin Wall became was a symbol of the free movement of people.
On May 18, 1987 President Ronald Reagan shouted at General Secretary Gorbachev, ”if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Historical accounts of the Berlin Wall estimate that over 200 people died attempting to cross the concrete and barbed wire barrier into West Germany. However, after investigation the figure, scholars have revised this figure down. Seventy-one “people were killed or died attempting to escape at the Berlin Wall between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989.”
Meanwhile, the Arizona Wall has become a symbol of American sovereignty on this side. It has been made a campaign issue with Senator John McCaine who once dismissed the effectiveness of building a wall, trying to emulate Reagan, saying in 2010 “Complete the danged fence.”
On the Mexican side, Mexican President Felipe Calderon compared the proposed US border fence to the Berlin Wall. In 2010–2011, 183 Mexicans died on the Arizona border corridor, 2009–2010, 253 died and in 2004–2005, 282 perished.
Neo-liberals promote the free flow of goods and capital but not the free flow of people. My friend the general may not agree with me, but walls are walls.
RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.