Sometimes white folks are insistent in their questioning, and if I say I've lived in Iowa for twenty years, or that I was born in Texas, their question morphs into "No, but really. Where are you from?" Like I'm hiding something, or being stubborn. After all, I know what they're getting at. They want to know my ethnicity, and because I look different, because I am brown, I must be—really, deep down—foreign. They just need to know HOW foreign. (Why? I don't know. So they can calculate how likely I am to go chola on their asses?)
I said I'd address immigration in this installment, and I will, but I really need to talk about how Latin@s and Hispanics have always been in the States, even before there WERE states. We have been erased from history, and from historical (speculative) fiction. Given this erasure, it's no wonder that even well-meaning whites tend to think of Latin@s as immigrants first and foremost, which leads to stereotypical Latin@ representations in fiction, if Latin@s are represented at all. And when stories deviate from the common "knowledge" of Latin@s in history, they are accused of being PC, unrealistic, or obsessed with race. (Although, to paraphrase comedian Hari Kondabolu, "saying I'm obsessed with discussing racism in America is like telling me I'm obsessed with swimming while I'm drowning.")
So, a reality check.
By 1763, Spain had claimed almost all the land west of the Mississippi. (Of course, that "claim" was spurious at best, since the land was already occupied by indigenous tribes.) It's fuzzy, but the terra cotta color in the map below indicates Spanish territory.
Few people seem to remember that half of the United States was once Spanish territory. Some of this ignorance is due to the notoriously short American attention span, but it's also a matter of racist erasure.
Hispanics fought in the American Revolutionary War. In the 1780s, Spaniards lived and worked in what would later be the state of Iowa.* Some Spaniards married Sioux women and lived with the Sioux. We have records of this. Do we have stories about it?
Most people, even Iowans, are baffled when I tell them about the Mines of Spain in Dubuque, Iowa. "Spain? What does Spain have to do with Iowa?" seems to be the general reaction. Well, in 1788, Julien Dubuque had to get permission from both the Fox tribe and the Spanish government to mine lead in this region, because it belonged to Spain. (for certain values of the term "belonged")
The Spanish ceded the Midwest to the French around 1800, and in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, the land became US territories. Around 1849, some 10,000 Mexican miners joined the California Gold Rush. In the 1850s railroads were built in Iowa, and Mexican workers helped make that happen. Has anyone written stories about these immigrants who built our railroads and factories, who worked the mines and the fields?
Hispanics and Latin@s, that includes women, fought in the American Civil War. Do we have stories about them?
Beginning in 1910, the Mexican Revolution pushed a wave of immigrants across the always permeable US-Mexico border. Contrary to one of the great immigration myths (Everybody wants to be American because America is Awesome!), most of these Mexicans had no desire to convert. They were just trying to get out of a war zone. One of my great-grandfathers fits this profile. He renewed his work visa as required, and his children grew up American citizens, but he had no desire to become an American citizen himself.
As the Revolution dragged on and the Mexican economy suffered, however, some immigrants ended up building lives on the American side—until the Great Depression. Then the panicky US government initiated "Mexican Repatriation." We sure as shit don't hear enough about this mass deportation of nearly two million Latin@s, more than half of whom were US citizens, who were shipped off to Mexico without due process from 1928 to 1939. Latin@s who remained in the States felt pressured to "pass" as white or otherwise hide their family history, which means gaps in the public record that make it easier for Americans to overlook Latin@ influences.
Nor do we hear or read much about "Operation Wetback"—yes, that was the official name of this INS program—which deported another million or so Latin@s from 1954 to 1964. (This after the US was so desperate for Mexican labor, it passed the Emergency Farm Labor Agreement in 1942.) INS ditched these people in cities they didn't know, without food or work or family. Those were the lucky deportees: others were beaten, or stranded in deserts to die of heat stroke.
If I'd lived back then, I'd have hidden my ethnicity too, if I could have. That's why Latin@ immigration to the US looks like a new thing when it's anything but. For all the talk of the melting pot (another immigration myth), the US government is quick to throw us out of the pot and into the fire.
Some more immigration facts that fly in the face of common "wisdom," and which consequently don't make it into the stories we tell:
Currently, net migration from Mexico to the United States is at zero, perhaps even less. But deportations are at record highs.
Of the 365,000 people deported by the US Border Patrol in 2012, about 100,000 were "Other than Mexican," most of them from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Although economics remain a strong motivator for recent immigrants, many are fleeing violence. In 2011, Honduras had the world's highest murder rate. El Salvador has consistently had some of the highest murder rates in the world since 1995. From 2007 to 2011, the homicide rate in Mexico tripled, spurring higher numbers of requests for political asylum in the US due to "credible fear."
And one of my own misconceptions: I thought the numbers of Latin American immigrants seeking asylum in the US because of their sexual orientation would be higher, given stereotypes about machismo and Catholicism in the region. But most of the articles I turned up regarding QUILTBAG immigrants involved abuses in the American immigration system or cases of same-sex spouses of American citizens. If anyone has better data on this issue, I would love to see it.
Bottom line: the realities of Latin@ and Hispanic populations in the US, past and present, offer so many story possibilities. I mean, pick an era, pick a place: we're there. You just need to look.
*I talk a lot about Iowa because (a) it's where I currently live and (b) it has a reputation for being very "white." But referring to Iowa history is also useful because (1) it stands in for most of the Midwest, (2) it implies Hispanic presence in the eastern US, because it's not as if the Spanish teleported from Spain to the Midwest; they had to cross half the North American continent, and (3) because whatever Latin@ presence we uncover in the Midwest, we can extrapolate even greater influence in the western US, which Spain held onto for longer.