The History of Immigration

Cesar Chavez Estrada

Image by Troy Holden via Flickr

The History of Immigration

by Jorge Majfud


One of the typical – correction: stereotypical – images of a Mexican has been, for more than a century, a short, drunk, trouble-maker of a man who, when not appearing with guitar in hand singing a corrido, was portrayed seated in the street taking a siesta under an enormous sombrero. This image of the perfect idler, of the irrational embodiment of vice, can be traced from old 19th century illustrations to the souvenirs that Mexicans themselves produce to satisfy the tourist industry, passing through, along the way, the comic books and cartoons of Walt Disney and Warner Bros. in the 20th century. We know that nothing is accidental; even the defenders of “innocence” in the arts, of the harmless entertainment value of film, of music and of literature, cannot keep us from pointing out the ethical significance and ideological function of the most infantile characters and the most “neutral” storylines. Of course, art is much more than a mere ideological instrument; but that does not save it from manipulation by one human group for its own benefit and to the detriment of others. Let’s at least not refer to as “art” that kind of garbage.

Ironies of history: few human groups, like the Mexicans who today live in the U.S. – and, by extension, all the other Hispanic groups, – can say that they best represent the spirit of work and sacrifice of this country. Few (North) Americans could compete with those millions of self-abnegating workers who we can see everywhere, sweating beneath the sun on the most suffocating summer days, in the cities and in the fields, pouring hot asphalt or shoveling snow off the roads, risking their lives on towering buildings under construction or while washing the windows of important offices that decide the fate of the millions of people who, in the language of postmodernity, are known as “consumers.” Not to mention their female counterparts who do the rest of the hard work – since all the work is equally “dirty” – occupying positions in which we rarely see citizens with full rights. None of which justifies the racist speech that Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, gave recently, declaring that Mexicans in the U.S. do work that “not even black Americans want to do.” The Fox administration never retracted the statement, never recognized this “error” but rather, on the contrary, accused the rest of humanity of having “misinterpreted” his words. He then proceeded to invite a couple of “African-American” leaders (some day someone will explain to me in what sense these Americans are African), employing an old tactic: the rebel, the dissident, is neutralized with flowers, the savage beast with music, and the wage slaves with movie theaters and brothels. Certainly, it would have sufficed to avoid the adjective “black” and used “poor” instead. In truth, this semantic cosmetics would have been more intelligent but not completely free of suspicion. Capitalist ethics condemns racism, since its productive logic is indifferent to the races and, as the 19th century shows, slave trafficking was always against the interests of industrial production. Hence, anti-racist humanism has a well-established place in the hearts of nations and it is no longer so easy to eradicate it except through practices that hide behind elaborate and persuasive social discourses. Nevertheless, the same capitalist ethics approves the existence of the “poor,” and thus nobody would have been scandalized if instead of “blacks,” the Mexican president had said “poor Americans.” All of this demonstrates, meanwhile, that not only those in the economic North live off of the unhappy immigrants who risk their lives crossing the border, but also the politicians and ruling class of the economic South, who obtain, through millions of remittances, the second most important source of revenue after petroleum, by way of Western Union to the “madre pobre,” from the blood and sweat of those expelled by a system that then takes pride in them, and rewards them with such brilliant discourses that serve only to add yet another problem to their desperate lives of fugitive production.

Violence is not only physical; it is also moral. After contributing an invaluable part of the economy of this country and of the countries from which they come – and of those countries from which they were expelled by hunger, unemployment and the disfavor of corruption – the nameless men, the unidentified, must return to their overcrowded rooms for fear of being discovered as illegals. When they become sick, they simply work on, until they are at death’s door and go to a hospital where they receive aid and understanding from one morally conscious part of the population while another tries to deny it to them. This latter part includes the various anti-immigrant organizations that, with the pretext of protecting the national borders or defending the rule of law, have promoted hostile laws and attitudes which increasingly deny the human right to health or tranquility to those workers who have fallen into illegality by force of necessity, through the empire of logic of the same system that will not recognize them, a system which translates its contradictions into the dead and destroyed. Of course we can not and should not be in favor of any kind of illegality. A democracy is that system where the rules are changed, not broken. But laws are a product of a reality and of a people, they are changed or maintained according to the interests of those who have power to do so, and at times these interests can by-pass the most fundamental Human Rights. Undocumented workers will never have even the most minimal right to participate in any electoral simulacrum, neither here nor on the other side of the border: they have been born out of time and out of place, with the sole function of leaving their blood in the production process, in the maintenance of an order of privilege that repeatedly excludes them and at the same time makes use of them. Everyone knows they exist, everyone knows where they are, everyone knows where they come from and where they’re going; but nobody wants to see them. Perhaps their children will cease to be ill-born wage slaves, but by then the slaves will have died. And if there is no heaven, they will have been screwed once and forever. And if there is one and they didn’t have time to repeat one hundred times the correct words, they will be worse off still, because they will go to Hell, posthumous recognition instead of attaining the peace and oblivion so desired.

As long as the citizens, those with “true human” status, can enjoy the benefits of having servants in exchange for a minimum wage and practically no rights, threatened day and night by all kinds of haunts, they will see no need to change the laws in order to recognize a reality installed a posteriori. This seems almost logical. Nonetheless, what ceases to be “logical” – if we discard the racist ideology – are the arguments of those who accuse immigrant workers of damaging the country’s economy by making use of services like hospitalization. Naturally, these anti-immigrant groups ignore the fact that Social Security takes in the not insignificant sum of seven billion dollars a year from contributions made by illegal immigrants who, if they die before attaining legal status, will never receive a penny of the benefit. Which means fewer guests at the banquet. Nor, apparently, are they able to understand that if a businessman has a fleet of trucks he must set aside a percentage of his profits to repair the wear and tear, malfunctions and accidents arising from their use. It would be strange reasoning, above all for a capitalist businessman, to not send those trucks in for servicing in order to save on maintenance costs; or to send them in and then blame the mechanic for taking advantage of his business. Nevertheless, this is the kind and character of arguments that one reads in the newspapers and hears on television, almost daily, made by these groups of inflamed “patriots” who, despite their claims, don’t represent a public that is much more heterogeneous than it appears from the outside – millions of men and women, overlooked by simplistic anti-American rhetoric, feel and act differently, in a more humane way.

Of course, it’s not just logical thinking that fails them. They also suffer from memory loss. They have forgotten, all of a sudden, where their grandparents came from. Except, that is, for that extremely reduced ethnic group of American-Americans – I refer to the indigenous peoples who came prior to Columbus and the Mayflower, and who are the only ones never seen in the anti-immigrant groups, since among the xenophobes there is an abundance of Hispanics, not coincidentally recently “naturalized” citizens. The rest of the residents of this country have come from some part of the world other than where they now stand with their dogs, their flags, their jaws outthrust and their hunter’s binoculars, safeguarding the borders from the malodorous poor who would do them harm by attacking the purity of their national identity. Suddenly, they forget where a large part of their food and raw materials come from and under what conditions they are produced. Suddenly they forget that they are not alone in this world and that this world does not owe them more than what they owe the world.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the unknown slaves of Africa, who if indeed are poor on their own are no less unhappy for fault of others; the slaves who provide the world with the finest of chocolates and the most expensive wood without the minimal recompense that the proud market claims as Sacred Law, strategic fantasy this, that merely serves to mask the one true Law that rules the world: the law of power and interests hidden beneath the robes of morality, liberty and right. I have in my memory, etched with fire, those village youths, broken and sickly, from a remote corner of Mozambique who carried tons of tree trunks for nothing more than a pack of cigarettes. Cargo worth millions that would later appear in the ports to enrich a few white businessmen who came from abroad, while in the forests a few dead were left behind, unimportant, crushed by the trunks and ignored by the law of their own country.

Suddenly they forget or refuse to remember. Let’s not ask of them more than what they are capable of. Let’s recall briefly, for ourselves, the effect of immigration on history. From pre-history, at each step we will find movements of human beings, not from one valley to another but crossing oceans and entire continents. The “pure race” proclaimed by Hitler had not emerged through spontaneous generation or from some seed planted in the mud of the Black Forest but instead had crossed half of Asia and was surely the result of innumerable crossbreedings and of an inconvenient and denied evolution (uniting blonds with blacks) that lightened originally dark faces and put gold in their hair and emerald in their eyes. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in 1453, the wave of Greeks moving into Italy initiated a great part of that economic and spiritual movement we would later know as the Rennaissance. Although generally forgotten, the immigration of Arabs and Jews would also provoke, in the sleepy Europe of the Middle Ages, different social, economic and cultural movements that the immobility of “purity” had prevented for centuries. In fact, the vocation of “purity” – racial, religious and cultural – that sunk the Spanish Empire and led it to bankrupcy several times, despite all of the gold of the Americas, was responsible for the persecution and expulsion of the (Spanish) Jews in 1492 and of the (Spanish) Arabs a century later. An expulsion which, paradoxically, benefited the Netherlands and England in a progressive process that would culminate in the Industrial Revolution. And we can say the same for our Latin American countries. If I were to limit myself to just my own country, Uruguay, I could recall the “golden years” – if there were ever years of such color – of its economic and cultural development, coinciding, not by accident, with a boom in immigration that took effect from the end of the 19th until the middle of the 20th century. Our country not only developed one of the most advanced and democratic educational systems of the period, but also, comparatively, had no cause to envy the progress of the most developed countries of the world, even though its population lacked, due to its scale, the geopolitical weight enjoyed by other countries at the time. At present, cultural immobility has precipitated an inverted migration, from the country of the children and grandchildren of immigrants to the country of the grandparents. The difference is rooted in the fact that the Europeans who fled from hunger and violence found in the Río de la Plata (and in so many other ports of Latin America) the doors wide open; their descendants, or the children and grandchildren of those who opened the doors to them, now enter Europe through the back door, although they appear to fall from the sky. And if indeed it is necessary to remember that a large part of the European population receives them happily, at a personal level, neither the laws nor general practice correspond to this good will. They aren’t even third class citizens; they are nothing and the management reserves the right to deny admission, which may mean a kick in the pants and deportation as criminals.

In order to obscure the old and irreplaceable Law of interests, it is argued – as Orian Fallaci has done so unjustly – that these are not the times of the First or Second World War and, therefore, one immigration cannot be compared to another. In fact, we know that one period can never be reduced to another, but they can indeed be compared. Or else history and memory serve no purpose. If tomorrow in Europe the same conditions of economic necessity that caused its citizens to emigrate before were to be repeated, they would quickly forget the argument that our times are not comparable to other historical periods and, hence, it’s reasonable to forget.

I understand that in a society, unlike a controlled laboratory experiment, every cause is an effect and viceversa – a cause cannot modify a social order without becoming the effect of itself or of something else. For the same reason, I understand that culture (the world of customs and ideas) influences a given economic and material order as much as the other way around. The idea of the determining infrastructure is the base of the Marxist analytical code, while the inverse (culture as a determinant of socio-economic reality) is basic for those who reacted to the fame of materialism. For the reasons mentioned above, I understand that the problem here lies in the idea of “determinism,” in either of the two senses. For its part, every culture promotes an interpretive code according to its own Interests and, in fact, does so to the measure of its own Power. A synthesis of the two approaches is also necessary for our problem. If the poverty of Mexico, for example, were only the result of a cultural “deformity” – as currently proposed by the theorists and specialists of Latin American Idiocy – the new economic necessities of Mexican immigrants to the United States would not produce workers who are more stoic and long-suffering than any others in the host country: the result would simply be “immigrant idlers.” And reality seems to show us otherwise. Certainly, as Jesus said, “there is none more blind than he who will not see.”


Translated by Bruce Campbell


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