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I Am Not Your “Wetback”

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh | CC BY 2.0

“Anti-Mexicanism is a form of nativism practiced by colonialists and their inheritors.”

—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (2017)

To borrow—more like steal—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 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. This includes a Ph.D. (city & regional planning) from UC Berkeley. This also includes an M.A. (urban planning) and a B.A. (history)—both from UCLA. I also say these words based on my personal/familial background plagued by abject poverty, violence and sense of hopelessness. This includes spending the first years of my life in Mexican slum (Colonia Libertad, Tijuana, Baja California) and formative years in violent American barrio (Ramona Gardens public housing project or Big Hazard projects, East Los Angeles).

When I say that I am not your “wetback,” it doesn’t just apply to myself. It also applies to the millions of resilient people of Mexican origin in this nation, where this racialized group’s deep ties to this land precede the Yankee invaders with their bloody annexation of Mexico’s territory—half of it taken by 1848. That’s 170 years of state violence, psychological pain, humiliation and exploitation experienced by Mexican Americans (or Chicanas/os) and Mexicans—my people—in el norte.

Yet, some 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 at 3am at “hidden” or “invisible” locations, like taco trucks, office buildings, 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/shame 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 respond with saying, “We are not all drug dealers, criminals and rapists.” By doing so, as the linguist Dr. George Lackoff argues in his book The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!:Know Your Values and Frame the Debatethis only reinforces Trump’s racist frame. (“Frames,” Lackoff argues, “are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”) According to Lackoff, we must be careful in how we respond when refuting frames with the same language or terminology: “When we negate a frame, we invoke the frame.” Thus, instead of accepting the premise of this Trump’s racist frame about Mexicans, we must reject the premise without giving it any credence.

Unfortunately, in trying to be accepted by the dominant culture, too many of these so-called Mexican American leaders and average citizens will say something like, “I’m an American, unlike 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 American leaders and average citizens who hold similar views, yet have refined their use of language, like Vice President Mike Pence, to remain closet racists.

It’s long overdue for Chicanas/os and Mexicans to 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 be proud of our ethnic roots 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 “innocent ones”) versus undocumented parents (bad immigrants or “sinners”), etc.

Moreover, we must also recognize that we come from a rich history with proud indigenous roots, 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 and rejected my working-class Mexican parents on at least two occasions. On the first occasion, at the age of 13, it consisted of the time when my father took my brother Salomon—now a critically acclaimed artist—and me to Malibu, California, to work as day laborers. (It was my mother’s idea so we could value our 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 witnessed my father chase luxury cars, “begging” the rich white guys to offer him and his lazy sons work on their beachfront lawns for the day. I wanted to run towards the ocean from sheer embarrassment. (Luckily for me, I didn’t know how to swim.)

On the second occasion, at the age of 17, it was during one of my Freshman Summer Program (FSP) classes at UCLA—as one of the few Chicanas/os in the history of the Big Hazard projects to get accepted into an elite university—I felt so embarrassed of my parent’s occupational status—domestic worker mother or doméstica and unemployed father with odd jobs—that I couldn’t utter what they did for a living during class introductions. It didn’t help that we lived in the projects (with subsided rent) and depended on government aid. Free school meals. Reagan cheese. Medical. Monetary aid. Food stamps. With the food stamps, we operated with fake money, as if living in a real-life Monopoly board game where we were the losers—go to jail, etc.

It wasn’t until I became a student activist (MEChA or Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) and history major (changed from mathematics)—where Igained political consciousness by studying the inherent contradictions of capitalism and long history of exploitation against my people—when I became 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.

I also learned from my student organizing efforts, such as co-organizing a student hunger strike to support undocumented students at UCLA (November 11-19, 1987). For the record, as I noted in a previous essay, “this hunger strike became the model for other Chicana/o student activists to stage similar hunger strikes at UCLA (May 24-June 7, 1993), UCSB (April 27-May 5, 1994) and other colleges/universities.” The hunger strike of 1993 eventually led to the creation of UCLA’s César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies. Thus, I must remind my fellow Chicana/o historians and activists of the significance or correlation between the hunger strike of 1987 and the hunger strike of 1993. Dr. Gómez-Quiñones can attest to this historical fact. (Just don’t remind him that I still owe him a research paper for my incomplete from this tumultuous time period over 30 years ago).

Moving forward, Chicanas/os and Mexicans must be fearless, learning from our long history of resistance, from the Aztec battles against the conquistador Hernán Cortésand his savage men to the Chicana/o Movement of the 1960s/1970s to the Latino immigrant gardeners fighting a draconian city law in the late 1990s to the brave undocumented youth of the present. We must also live and work without seeking validation or accepting crumbs from the dominant society.

In short, we must always walk with our heads held high, demanding to be treated with dignity and respect.

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Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” published by San Diego State University Press (2013).

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