Translation Nation and the immigration backlash
Speech at the Envisioning California Conference, Sept. 19, 2007, at the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles.



Much has happened in the immigration debate in the United States in the short time since Translation Nation was published. Many people see a country defined by increasing xenophobia, and by the crusade against illegal immigration. Some readers wonder if Translation Nation's essentially optimistic vision of the Latino community isn't at odds with the increasingly harsh tone of the immigration debate.

This speech, given at a conference in California on immigration, is my attempt to reflect on the historical moment we are living and what it means for the Latino community in our country. 



 The U.S.-Mexico border, near the Pacific Ocean.








The spot where the border fence ends, just outside Naco, Sonora and Naco, Arizona.









Hector takes a break on the international frontier near Naco, Arizona.






















































































































































































Georgia Bulldogs Stadium, Athens Ga.















Los Tigres del Norte






































































































































Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court chief justice who argued in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that blacks were not part of the "sovereign people" who founded the United States.



Born into slavery, Dred Scott argued for his freedom after his owner travelled with him to free territory. His case eventually transformed the American definition of citzenship.





































































































Los Angeles City Hall, March 2006





Copyright: Héctor Tobar, 2007


When you're a journalist, you see sad things. You collect sad stories, and you retell them, you package them in newsprint, or on digital video, and they are circulated and broadcast, and sometimes millions of people read them and listen to them. Tragedy is the easiest kind of story to collect. Loss, death, exploitation: they are all essential human stories that the reader or viewer can quickly digest. For a journalist, it's a relatively easy story to gather, because after all we live in a world where the harvest of injustice and violence knows no fallow seasons.

As many of us here know, the immigrant experience, and especially the Latino immigrant experience is often depicted as a tragedy. Loss and hardship are an undeniable part of what it means to leave one’s country and begin the journey to the United States. The defining, iconic image of the immigrant experience in the American media today is, of course, of the fence on the Mexico-U.S. border, and of people jumping over this barrier, or running across the Sonora Desert, or being captured by the Border Patrol. This is invariably a stark image, an image of desperation, and, very often, an image of helplessness.

Your humble servant has spun a few tragic tales of immigrant woe in his day, and will likely continue to do so, unfortunately. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a town near
Mexico’s border with Guatemala, in the state of Tabasco, to talk to people crossing into Mexico on the way to the United States. I went there because I had been told that that freight trains on which hundreds of thousands or more Central American immigrants hitched a 1,000-mile free ride to the United States, are no longer running.


And it’s true. There are no trains running in Tabasco or Chiapas, because the lines are too old and worn out for the American owners to make a profit on them. The absence of the train is forcing people to walk for days to get around the checkpoints of the Mexican immigration authorities. In Tabasco I heard stories of people walking for two weeks, as much as 150 miles along the tracks, through the relentless tropical heat, across swampy terrain, and arriving at cities like Arriaga, Chiapas with blistering and bleeding feet, and basically surrendering to the authorities out of sheer exhaustion. I went to a town in Tabasco called Tenosique, and met two groups of mostly Honduras immigrants. In a shelter, I met a boy who was 16, but who looked much younger, and who told me he’d caught once already by the Mexican migra walking on the railroad tracks and sent back to Honduras. He was going to try again. And, outside Tenosique, as I and two human-rights workers were walking along the tracks, through the 90-degree heat, we met a group of immigrants hiding in the tall grasses on the side of the railroad line, because up ahead they’d run into the Mexican migra. They’d been stopped after 1 mile of walking, and had 150 to go.


This of course, was a tragic situation. When you meet people in such a moment, you are meeting them during what will likely be, God willing, the most humiliating thing they will ever live through. And while I can tell you, truthfully, that I saw a certain resourcefulness, and an undeniable dignity in these men and women on the railroad tracks, who were all from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, there’s no denying they were in a bad state. They had already crossed the Guatemalan jungle in a two-day bus ride, then they’d paid smugglers in a Guatemala river town that, I’m told, is kind of the Wild West of Guatemala, a place where the smugglers carry AK-47s, and shipments of cocaine land by the plane-load; and after visiting that place, the migrants had hiked for two days across the border into Guatemala, to the town where the trains were no longer running. Of all those people, I’ll remember longest the women of about 30 who had just crawled out of the swamp, who had cut herself on some cattle rancher’s strand of barbed wire as she ran away from the Mexican migra. She looked like she just wanted to go home.


That tens of thousands of good, hard-working people undertake and subject themselves to this Odyssey, that they accept this torture as the price they must pay for a job in the U.S. service sector is, of course, not only a tragedy and also an outrage. The immigrant experience in the late 20th and early 21st centuries—be it in the jungles of Guatemala, or the deserts of Arizona, or the open seas off Africa—has a seemingly limitless capacity to produce these kinds of epic tragedies.

But it would be wrong, of course, to see the immigrant experience exclusively as a tragedy. In fact, I am here today to tell you what most of you know already: that seen in its totality, the immigrant experience is not a tragedy at all.

I have tried, for much of my writing life, to subvert the notion of the immigrant experience as tragedy, as loss, and to combat the notion of our collective powerlessness, of our collective submissiveness.

I suppose I’ve done this primarily because tragedy wasn’t a word I’d use to match my own experience as the son of Guatemalan immigrants. No, the word I would most use to describe my family’s immigrant experience is “ambition.” My father was 20 years old when he came to this country and he had the idea that he would get the high school education denied to him in Guatemala, that he would get the college education he wanted, that his children would achieve the full expression of their potential as human beings. It’s ambition that drives the immigrant experience in the United States because when someone from Guatemala or Guanajuato arrives California, or in Georgia or Nebraska, after completing their journey on the rails, or through the desert, or on an airplane, it doesn’t take them long to realize that the United States has in abundance a precious mineral that’s in short supply in Latin America: social mobility. So people sign on to the American project, in their own way, with a little business investment here, a little mortgage there. They have successes. Sometimes they send their kids to college.


When I became a reporter in late 1980s Los Angeles, and started to write about the immigrant experience, I saw the spirit of my father all around me. To me, California was the Republic of Immigrant Reinvention. And together, immigrants in the last decades of the 20th century made California into a kind of Latin American city, though, in many ways, it really isn’t one, and never will be one, for a lot of reasons that are obvious, and others that aren’t so. One is the reasons is that the immigrant experience remains defined by a deep cultural ambivalence. Ambivalence is the other word I’d used to describe the immigrant experience. Seen from the Latin American perspective, the immigrant begins to lose his Latin Americanness after a relatively short time in the United States. Money assumes a central role in the migrant’s life, and family a little less, he becomes more a more calculating person, because his new environment demands it. That’s what they say in Mexico about the paisanos who go north. And after a while, the immigrant would agree: he starts thinking about this new place, this U.S. city or town, like his home, and he starts to build things there that are like the things back home, or that remind him of home, even though he realizes he can never go back to that old place he used to call home because he has seen things, lived things in the United States that have changed him forever. If he’s lucky enough to go back home, the old barrio or pueblo will look different, and he will realize that it’s impossible to return and make his life there again. And so the immigrant starts to believe that he actually belongs in Kansas, in Chicago, in Tennessee, in the Bronx, and he imagines a life for his family there, stretching into future generations. There are enough of these people with these dreams, enough with either citizenship, or legal status, or who think they have a way to sort all the little “problemita” of not having papers, and they are hard-headed, brave and ambitious and patient enough, that the United States will never be the same again.


I describe all this in Translation Nation and people tell me: your book is very optimistic, it’s very upbeat. And there are some people who are, in a strange way, disappointed by my optimism. Because they still see tragedy, loss and loathing as the central defining traits of the immigrant experience. Specifically, they see the immigrant experience as defined by the ravages, the rhetoric and the displacements of the current historical moment we are living, with its Bill O’Reillys, with its deportations.


I would argue that, in large measure, the current backlash against immigration is, in fact, a response to the cultural self-confidence and assertiveness of the immigrant in the United States, be he or she a native of Southeast Asia, or Guatemala, or Korea. But most threatening, if only because of their sheer numbers, are people from Spanish speaking lands. Our Latin American brothers and sisters enter and live in the United States with their very strong sense of who they are and where they come from, and, today, their Romance language can be heard in every corner of the United States.


I believe that the cultural self-confidence of the Latino United States, and the changes they are bringing to U.S. culture, will one day be seen as a defining element of American History in the first half of 21st century. Future historians will compare the transformations of this time to the other great movements of people that have defined American culture and shaped its political institutions: the European migrations of the 19th century; the Great Migration of African Americans away the states of the old Confederacy in the first half of the 20th century.


Like those other migrations, this migration too has been a world-transforming event for millions of Americans, who are seeing their notion of what their Americans cities and towns should “look like,” and “sound like,” and how their neighbors should “act,” deeply challenged.


Consider, for a moment, a modern-day resident of northeast Georgia. She lives in cities with statues of Confederate soldiers in the town square, where the high schools have big stadiums for the football team, where people know their neighbors and wave to passing strangers. Some of her neighbors wave the Stars and Bars, which is a reminder of one set of battles fought a century and a half in the past, and another set of battles fought just forty years ago, struggles not forgotten by the locals, struggles fought under banners labeled “white,” “colored,” and “black.”


Enter the Mexican immigrant. They come to work: to make carpets and tear apart chickens.


These new people show little or no interest in the local football team. Soccer is their game, and they play it in the right field of the baseball diamond during night Little League practices. They sell tacos underneath the statue of Johnny Reb, and in front of the plaque put up a century ago by the Daughters of the Confederacy. They aren’t offended by the Confederate flag because they have no idea what it stands for. Soon there are Spanish language radio stations for them, and Spanish newspapers, and they are plastering the lampposts with posters announcing concerts by swarthy men with accordions and Stetsons and leopard-print vests.


Now, I would argue, that if the Latinos of Northeast Georgia had decided to sit down and become good, orthodox “Southerners,” if they didn’t try to conserve their Spanish, if they didn’t drive down South Thornton Avenue in Dalton, Georgia with Mexican flags waving from the back of their pickup trucks (something I saw with my own eyes not long ago), and if they started wearing authentic Georgia Bulldog replica football jerseys, instead of Chivas de Guadalajara knockoffs, and if they started listening to Kelly Clarkson instead of Los Tigres del Norte, well, then there would be no backlash—or, at the very least, the backlash wouldn’t be quite so fierce.

There is something very disturbing to see otherness in one's home. To feel one’s home is being occupied by a foreign presence. Now to me, as I describe in Translation Nation, getting to know the founders of the
Dalton, Ga. International Soccer League, or tuning into a Spanish language radio station outside of Omaha, Nebraska, was a bit like encountering a tiny bit of home in a strange and faraway place. But I can understand how that might look and sound different to someone who can't conjugate Spanish verbs, to someone who doesn't know why we put accents on letters, or who can’t understand a word of the Spanish chatter on the radio.


Not long ago, I experienced a similar feeling myself, when I visited my old elementary school in East Hollywood. I’ve long thought of the gritty sidewalks of that neighborhood as my home, it’s the place that provokes the greatest nostalgia in me, associating it as I do with my deepest childhood memories. So I went there recently, just to get in touch with those old memories, and around the corner from my old apartment, I saw one of those official, dark-blue city of L.A. rectangular signs that announced that I was standing in “Little Armenia.”


This, to me, was a bit of a shock. Probably if that sign had said “Little Guatemala City,” I might have felt a burst of pride. But no, it said “Little Armenia.” I am not Armenian, alas. I grew up with at least one Armenian friend and there are many things about the Armenian experience with which I identify—diaspora being # 1 on the list—but alas, I am not Armenian. 


When you encounter this kind of change in a place you think of as your home, you suffer a sense of loss. Or better said, a sense that something has been taken away from you. You can either accept your loss as part of the natural order of America, or you can blame someone for it. And if you think you can put a name on who or what is responsible for your loss, it can quickly turn to anger. This is the emotion that is clearly at the root of much of the discussion over immigration.


So when we talk about immigration, we are talking really, about the struggle over American identity, how Americans should act, what they should believe in, what language they should speak. If previous American History is any guide, then this aspect of the immigration debate will eventually have a happy resolution: because what is American identity, anyway, but a quilt woven by migrating peoples, by people on the go, or people in flight, by Pilgrims and by the Irish, by the journey from Mississippi to Chicago, and by the Trail of Tears, and by the Russians and the Chinese, and so many others.


But there’s a second aspect to this current debate whose outcome is much more uncertain. This aspect of the debate is bit harder to see, because it’s more abstract, because it involves economics, the law, and a sometimes amorphous concept called citizenship.


I would argue that the current debate over immigration is really a struggle over the kind of social order which we, as Americans, are creating in our country in the unfolding 21st century. There are many people in this county who argue passionately in favor of immigration reform because they realize that we Americans are, very slowly, inexorably and inevitably creating a new social and economic pecking order in the United States, in which there is a permanent underclass of people of Latin American descent in this country.


If you look at it this way, this new chapter of American history we are living, and the rhetoric is has engendered, bears a striking resemblance to another chapter of American history: the mid 19th century debate over slavery.

Now, I draw this parallel not to argue that there is a moral equivalency between slavery in the 19th Century
United States and the status of illegal, or undocumented immigrants in the 21st Century United States. No. Rather, I draw it to demonstrate how similar the debates sound. And this similarity, I think, is a reflection of the profound economic, social and legal divisions that are coming to define our current existence as a nation.


Both the 19th century United States, and the 21st century United States, are countries increasingly defined by a dramatic social hierarchy, where millions of people are a de facto “citizens” of the United States, in the broadest, most informal sense of that word in my American Heritage dictionary, that is, definition #4: “a native, denizen or inhabitant of a particular place,” but who are not citizens in the strict legal sense, which is #1 in my American Heritage: “a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation.” Slaves did not have citizenship. There were 4 million such people in the 1860 Census, each a de jure member of a Caste of Laborers. Today, there are an estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. In the modern day U.S., it’s possible to meet people who speak English as their first language, who were raised as Americans from a very young age, whose Spanish is halting, and yet who are not American citizens. They are non-American Americans. With each passing year without an immigration reform law, the number of people in this category increases, as does the undocumented immigrant population in general. We are gradually creating a new Laboring Caste in the United States. They are not slaves, no. But in the eyes of the law, they are lesser people.


Today, as in the mid 19th century, the lawmakers and jurists of this country debate the status of the Laboring Caste. In both that 19th century country, and in the modern United States, there are many policy makers who recognize that the Laboring Caste is the engine of the economy. And yet, in both countries, the members of the Laboring Caste are outsiders to the national identity. They have no citizenship rights. And in the eyes of the nation’s majority, they are an uncultured, alien people, the barbarian antithesis of the country’s proud cultural and intellectual heritage. The two words used to describe undocumented immigrants are loud punctuation marks on their outsider status—“aliens,” and the more recent morphing of the adjective “illegal,” into the noun “illegals,” which is, of course, a favorite on Fox News. In the defining Supreme Court decision of the slavery debate, Dred Scott vs. Sanford, the Chief Justice of the United States, Roger B. Taney, wrote in the majority opinion that that blacks had “no rights which a white man was bound to respect” because blacks had been recognized as “inferior” for a century before the Constitution was adopted. Blacks, Taney wrote, were not part of the “sovereign people” who wrote the Constitution, they were outsiders, non-American Americans.


Now, in both the 19th century United States, and the modern United States, you can find people who identify with the outsiders of the Laboring Caste and with the poignancy of their suffering, their essential humanity. Books are written celebrating the work ethic and resilience of these people: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. And in our times, the wonderful work of my friends Ruben Martinez, Luis Alberto Urrea, and many others. But many more residents of these two countries see the Laboring Caste as a threat. They believe the Laboring Caste belongs to an essentially violent and untamed branch of the human race. They are a latent threat to the social order, made all the more insidious by the fact that they are everywhere: in fields, in homes, caring for our children. The Old South had its Nat Turner, who massacred white families in their homes; and if you turn on Bill O’Reilly on any given day, you’ll hear about the latest outrage committed by a drunk or murderous illegal. Just a few weeks ago, as many of you here know, Newt Gingrich called on Congress to take action because Americans are being “massacred” by illegal immigrants.


Then, as now, a vocal and influential minority of thinkers argues differently: they believe the members of the Laboring Caste should be incorporated as full citizens into the political order: in the 19th century, the watchword was Emancipation; in the 21st, Amnesty. But many more people argue that giving this population citizenship is tantamount to national suicide: because to them, the idea that these outsiders, that these lesser people could be full citizens, that they might vote, that they might have access to the full rights outlined in our nation’s Magna Carta, subverts the very idea of a national identity. That’s why the South succeeded from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president: because the notion that Lincoln would emancipate the slaves and make blacks equal to whites was a threat to the Southern definition of what it meant to be an American.


Once again, I draw these comparisons not to draw any moral equivalency between slavery and the status of illegal immigrants. But rather to show how similar the debate is, and how deep this question cuts into the social and legal fabric of our country.


Now, it turns out that much of our legal definition of what citizenship is and who is entitled to it was shaped by the struggle and the debate over slavery. The winner of that debate was decided on the battlefield. When the Confederacy was defeated, slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. And to forever erase the Dred Scott decision from American jurisprudence, the radical reconstructionists in Congress passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Your humble servant derives his citizenship from the 14th Amendment, because the courts have decreed that the 14th Amendment makes the U.S.-born children of immigrants U.S. citizens.


Now, as we know, the victory in the Civil War, and the passage of the Reconstruction amendments did not end the subservient status of black people in this country. In fact, almost a century passed from the end of the Civil War in 1865, to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which is really the beginning of de facto full citizenship for African Americans. That century was not an easy century for black people in this country. True, it produced the Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey, Jazz, Jackie Robinson, “The Souls of Black Folk,” and so many other wonderful and inspiring people and works. But it was also a century of Jim Crow, a century of lynching, a century whose ravages ended only with a moral crusade in which millions of people took to the streets, a moral crusade that turned the Old South upside down and cost many idealistic people their lives.


I would argue that if immigration continues in its present chaotic form, and if there is no immigration reform in this country, then we will inevitably create another century of American History in which a culture of exploitation and passivity becomes a permanent feature in the American landscape. The humiliation of the illegal crossing will become more and more of a defining experience of Latin Americans in the United States. And the immigrant experience will be gradually be transformed from one of reinvention, to a test of endurance. How many deportations can you withstand? How many hours in a smuggler’s safe house, how much money will you pay the smuggler to get you back to that place in the north you call home?


This question has implications for all people who live in the United States, and not just the millions of people among us without papers. I would argue that the underlying hypocrisy of our country’s stance toward illegal immigrants, the acceptance that we will have our lawns cut, our chickens processed, our meals cooked, our crops picked, and our homes built by people who are not citizens, is a stain on American democracy. It depresses the economic and social status of all Latinos, including those of us who are American citizens. Like so many other injustices and inequalities in our age, it undermines democracy because it taints the relationships between the people who live in that democracy.  If we accept, in our everyday lives, a situation that so brazenly mocks the notion that “all men are created equal,” then that sacred phrase of the Enlightenment, a phrase that has endured in the American consciousness for more than two centuries, will gradually lose its meaning.


To paraphrase a 19th century politician, a country thus divided cannot long endure. Eventually, inevitably, the current state of affairs will produce more social and political convulsions in this country. Will it produce a new Civil Rights movement in this country? Perhaps. The large marches of 2006 may have been a kind of foreshadowing of our American future, a future in which new generations of American movers, of American migrants, claim their place in the American home as millions of others of movers, migrants have before them: on the street, on the march, in struggle.


Thank you.