NACLA has inaugurated this “From the Archives” section to bring to our readers some of the best and most interesting material that we have published over our first 46 years. In this issue we put the spotlight on the Salvadoran-Chicano journalist Rubén Martínez who, some 16 years ago, in a Report on Mexico, wrote of the ambiguities of trans-border identities in what quickly became a NACLA classic: “Beyond Borders.” Read and enjoy.
GOSPEL: From “The Acts of the Apostles”: ... there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues...
A cholo from the Purépecha Plateau in Michoacán strolls down the main street of Nahuatzen, pushing past grandmothers in shawls and peasants in muddy boots. He’s wearing his Oakland Raiders cap backwards and his head is shaved East-L.A. style. He’s got his Nikes on and his baggy pants. He’s wearing a sleeveless T-shirt to display the tragicomic mask tattooed on his shoulder with the slogan la vida loca.
He goes into a video arcade with his buddies and spends an hour killing ninjas, blacks and Arabs. Each time he kills a bad guy he screams: “En la madre, motherfucker!” Then he climbs into his ranfla, a broken-down ‘79 Datsun with North Carolina plates, and he goes cruiseando through town singing the refrain from a golden oldie: “My angel baby, my angel baby/oooh I love you, yes I do....” At eight o’clock, with the church bells ringing, he heads home, where his grandmother in long traditional braids awaits him. She greets him in Tarasco, the Purépecha language, and this postborder tough guy, with the utmost respect, answers in his ancestral language.
They sit in the living room, turn on the Samsung TV hooked up to a satellite dish on the roof, and they spend a couple of hours wachando MTV, CNN and the soap opera “De pura sangre.”
Meanwhile, back in Los United States: I know a young Chicano whose folks emigrated from that very same Purépecha Plateau 20 years ago following the lettuce harvest in Watsonville, California, the watermelon harvest in Kentucky, the tobacco harvest in North Carolina and the orange harvest in Florida. After working a bit on the railroad in Nebraska and as room cleaners in a Dallas hotel, the family settled down in Southern California where they straightened out their papers and bought a modest home in a San Fernando Valley neighborhood affectionately rebaptized “North Hollywood, Michoacán.” Three generations ago, Mexicans picked oranges here and it was neither North Hollywood nor Michoacán.
This young man was an outstanding student in high school, loves biology and is now a sophomore at UCLA. He speaks English and Spanish perfectly and can even say a few words in Tarasco. He used to be a fan of Death Metal and Trash, but today he belongs to the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA). He spends every weekend deep in the woods of the Los Padres National Forest, a mountainous area north of Los Angeles where an old Indian from the Chumash tribe teaches Indian traditions to young Chicano radicals and preaches about a spiritual war in which the bronze race will recover its dignity.
This Purépecha and very Chicano postrocker goes back home after the sweatlodge ritual and spends a couple of hours with his parents and brothers and sisters watching a bit of MTV, CNN and the soap opera. “De pura sangre.”
GOSPEL: Words from “The Adventures of La Gaby” (scandalously suppressed by Cardinal Ratzinger), the hottest Jalisco transvestite at El Plaza, a Latino gay club in Hollywood, California:
we’re always departing
splitting ourselves in two tearing ourselves apart departing; it’s a never-ending I-leave-we-leave leaving
that takes us nowhere and everywhere
oh sweetie! but you’re so cute.
If we observed the present through the lens of the bullshit past, we Mexicans would say that our national identity is once more under attack by free-trading yanqui invaders and that each satellite dish is a direct challenge to the kingdom of her holiness the Virgin of Guadalupe. We’d say Chicanos are a bunch of stupid pochos with no right to call themselves Mexicans, and that the narco-cholos of Michoacán are threatening the nationalist spirit of our beloved Mexico. We’d say, “What a shame Purépechas watch MTV, CNN and ‘De pura sangre’ instead of cultivating their patch of corn in bare feet with the tools of antiquity.”
For those who persist in thinking that a linear border separates what it means to be Mexican, Indian, Mestizo, Chicano, etc., history has passed you by. Those who still cling to the notion of “the spiritual Indian” deny the Indian present: that Indians can be and are as modern as the “postmoderns” from any of the planet’s great urban centers. In fact, more Indians live in cities than in the countryside, and an enormous number of Mexican Indians live on the northern side of the border. In other words, the Indians frozen in dioramas in Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology and History that Mestizos so admire, are more inquisitive, more on-the-move and more in touch with modernity than the Mestizos themselves. Indians are the people who work on “the other side” and come back with a new television set and VCR to enjoy the movies of Steven Seagal. Just as Mestizos lament the supposed loss of their Indian past, they see Chicanos and their supposed identity crisis as tragic. But those who see a “loss of Mexicanness” in Chicanos don’t know much about themselves. In many ways Chicanos are more “Mexican” than the Mexico City middle class, whose gaze is ever fixed on New York and Paris.
Middle-class Mestizos have set up a false dynamic. They believe the future lies in the North (in the United States or Europe) and the past lies in the Purépecha Plateau (or the Lacandón Jungle or the Sierra Tarahumara). The truth is that time and space no longer obey such primitive borders. The future lies on both sides of the border, as does the past, and the present is everywhere: satellite dishes and cholos in Michoacán, neo-Indians and Mixteca soccer teams in California. Everything moves, everything changes, everything remains. It seems that the only ones who feel comfortable in these rough seas are Indians and Chicanos, who understand that the future and the past coexist in the present.
More than a loss of identity, what is happening is a continuation of the process of mestizaje in which Indians and Chicanos can put together a cultural package of their own choosing. Culture is an organism that must adapt to new surroundings to stay alive and continue growing. Hence the young Mixtec who lives in Fresno, California and who no longer speaks his native language is still a Mixtec. At the same time, as philosopher Oswald Spengler noted, the landscape also continually adapts to new organisms that emerge: today, gringos consume more salsa than ketchup, to mention a superficial gastronomical fact rather than enumerate the obvious ways in which gringo society depends economically and socially on Latinos in the United States.
The future won’t necessarily annihilate the past: tradition and novelty can cohabit in the present. In the towns of the Purépecha Plateau, the same house that has a satellite dish pointed at the heavens may belong to a bruja, or witch, who cures “evil diseases” with herbs and Tarot, or by a trilingual teenager—Spanish, English and Tarasco—who loves the hard-core rock band Transmetal as much as pirecuas, the region’s traditional music.
To view this process as damaging to cultural health is to project an image of Indians as passive victims of history. And that is precisely the worst stereotype created by Mestizos about Indian identity. A few months ago a young activist woman from los United whose parents had emigrated from India arrived in Mexico City. She had one of those strange backpacks that gringos and Europeans like to carry when they go to the Third World (as if they were heading off on safari in search of elephants and aborigines). She thought the capital was awful. “So many white people,” she said. So much noise, so many lights, so many buildings, so many cars. Of course she left the city to find the Tzotziles in Chiapas. They have no need for electricity, television sets, or shoes or books, she said excitedly. Indians live au naturel. How cool!
Similarly, because of their inferiority complex vis-a-vis gringos and Europeans, Mestizos from the capital invent myths about Indians in order to feel that they themselves are modern. When a Mexico City Mestizo turns nationalist and takes a neo-indigenist stance in front of foreigners, it is the height of hypocrisy. When I first came to Mexico City as an adult over ten years ago, college teachers and leftists in general treated me paternalistically. Poor Chicano, they told me. In your country you suffer from the scourge of racism. Here in Mexico we have no identity crisis. Give me a fucking break!
We Chicanos (or in my case Chicano-Salvadorans born in Los Angeles who now live in Mexico City) know, a bit like Buddhists, that stability is a state of movement. To put it simply, these days people who don’t move die. Which happens to be the opposite of the motto of the latest operation of the Border Patrol: “Stay out, stay alive” (rhetorically displaying on the border fence the bodies of those illegals who drown in the Rio Bravo or die of thirst in the desert). But there are many Mexicans who know that to stay alive is to move economically, culturally, linguistically, sexually. Given what we have affirmed here, we offer:
THE PLATFORM OF THE WETBACK PARTY
The problem is not the language we speak nor the accent with which we speak it.
The problem here is the Border Patrol.
The problem is not being gay, straight, bi or transvestite.
The problem is AIDS.
The problem is not whether we’re Catholics or Pentecostals or Sufis.
The problem is lack of tolerance, and the fact that the state, the Catholic Church and other social and economic powers encourage intolerance by promoting the false image of a homogeneous nation.
The problem is not street vending or prostitution or drug addiction.
The problem is neoliberalism, which leaves many people without any chance to participate economically or culturally in the process of globalization, while it benefits the middle classes of the United States and Europe who so like to dance salsa, eat Thai food and attend the performances of Guillermo G6mez Pefia.
GOSPEL: From “The Book of La Licuadora (The Blender)” (also scandalously suppressed by Cardinal Ratzinger), the biggest and toughest of the people smugglers in the town of Cherán, Michoacán:
They screwed us once those assholes
from the gringos’ Migra. But
watch out next time ‘cause now we’re armed with more than the water on our backs.
They don’t call me The Blender for nothing.
In the United States, homogenizing untruths are promoted by the conservative and liberal establishments (Republicans as well as Democrats) and by the marginalized left. It has been said, for example, that with Latino majorities in several U.S. cities, la raza will finally be able to exercise some political power to counter xenophobic measures like California’s Proposition 187, or the infamous welfare reform signed by President Clinton. Indeed, in the November 1996 elections, California’s new Latino citizens ousted Representative “B-I” Bob Dornan, a Republican nativist, with young Democrat—and, need we mention, Latina—Loretta Sanchez.
But we Latinos in los United aren’t the least bit homogeneous. We’re Salvadorans and Guatemalans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, Hondurans and Colombians and Nicaraguans, and among the Mexicans you’ve got to distinguish between recent arrivals, second- and third- generation Chicanos, and the Hispanos of New Mexico whose roots in the Southwest reach back centuries. What’s more, we’re middle class and working class, white and black and Indian, Catholic and Pentecostal and Jewish. We’re everything we are on the other side (that is, in Latin America).
It’s hard to imagine the Miami Cubans always agreeing with the California Chicanos, or the Zacatecas migrants always getting along with those from Michoacán (just remember the rumbles between those two in St. Louis, which left several dozen dead or wounded). On both sides of the Rio Grande we are immersed in a rapid process of mestizaje: cultures and subcultures bloom like the thousand flowers of Mao. For us, this process creates new utopias and new apocalypses simultaneously. For example, in the barrio of Compton in South L.A.—famous all over the world for its African-American gangs and rappers like Ice Cube and Niggers With Attitude (NWA)—the Latino population (most of them recent arrivals from Mexico and Central America) is threatening to displace the African-American community. As this demographic change occurs, two opposing realities confront each other on the streets of Compton. On the one hand is a racial and class conflict between Blacks and Latinos: the appearance if not the reality of competition between the two for the few poorly paid jobs left in southern California. “Pinches mayates,”—fucking niggers—say the Mexicans of the Blacks. “Fuckin’ wetbacks,” say the Blacks of the Mexicans.
Yet, out of this seemingly apocalyptic situation emerge new possibilities. Two years ago in Compton High School, a young Salvadoran was elected president of the student council. He won votes from both Blacks and Latinos. Because the kid speaks English and Spanish. Because he listens to rap and oldies and boleros and rock. Because his girlfriend is Black. Because he was practically born in the barrio (he came from his country of birth when he was six) and he can talk African-American English and Spanish equally well.
We have two presents, two contradictory futures: the chaos of a modern Tower of Babel, or a new Pentecost in which all will understand each other even though we end up speaking different languages. What threatens us with a new Babel is the economic rupture that pits “marginal” groups against one another over the crumbs of the new economic order, an order which clearly will not offer the majority access to the American dream.
As the dream of a better life is thwarted for Mexicans in New York, African-Americans in Chicago, Turks in France, Nigerians in England and Purépechas in Michoacán, desperation grows, and with it, desperate attempts to survive: crossing the border in Arizona and risking dying of thirst in the desert; getting into drug trafficking, prostitution, street vending; the thousand ways you can live off the black market. Or unburdening yourself through violence aimed at people like yourself, like the Zacatecans and Michoacaners who bust each other’s heads in St. Louis, or the Mexican “18 Street” gang and the Salvadoran “Mara Salvatrucha” gang who battle over Los Angeles’s Pico Union.
Political unity among Latinos, if it ever happens, will be only momentary. The struggle against Proposition 187 in California was a classic example. In 1994, days before the vote that approved the anti-immigrant measure, more than 100,000 people marched in Los Angeles, including plenty of Chicanos and Salvadorans, from recent arrivals to third-generation Americans. After losing the vote, however, the movement fell apart. Desperation and frustration can bring people together, but it can also accelerate fragmentation. Today we are more fragmented than ever, which is terrible, which is beautiful. When the false homogenizing constructs of the past break up, awareness of our diversity—and tolerance of that diversity, I hope—will increase along with a sort of existential anguish. If “essential” Mexico doesn’t exist, what can we use to fill the void? If the melting pot doesn’t exist, how can we reconstruct the American Dream? This is not a time for unearthing old bullshit or for hanging your head. It is a time for expanding our concept of identity, of tolerance, of democracy.
What’s crucial is finding a way to connect our processes of cultural and social migration with our economic situation, and forming alliances across lines of race and ethnicity to confront class inequity head-on. Because by now we all know, as they say in Chiapas, that where there is hunger there can be no democracy. Or as any of the postborder Purépecha kids would say: if there ain’t no job, let’s head for the other side!
Rubén Martinez is an editor at Pacific News Service.