Beyond Borders: Culture, Movement, and Bedlam on Both Sides of the Rio Grande

Rubén Martinez

 

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.


1805

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:

 

My love


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’ MigraBut


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.

 

Read the rest of NACLA's Spring 2013 issue: "The Climate Debt: Who Profits, Who Pays?"

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