The Tense Embrace of the "Other": Mexico and the U.S.

Rubén Martínez

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I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but I've had a series of second homes in my life. For a time, it was the beaches of Venice, California, where I prowled for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Later, I searched for the Revolution in my mother's home country, El Salvador. There were a few pilgrimages looking for God in the endless skies and atop the mesas and buttes of the Southwestern United States, and. . . .

I still haven't settled down. Today, my second home is Mexico City, where my father and his father lived off and on in the 1940s and '50s. I shuttle back and forth between Los Angeles and this, the smoggiest, most populous, and, for me, the most beautiful city on earth. I move back and forth because I don't feel completely at home anywhere--I miss a bit of Los Angeles when I'm in Mexico City, and vice versa.

The distance between L.A. and "el D.F.," as the capital of Mexico is known, is growing shorter by the day. Perhaps in some as yet only dimly imaginable future, it won't matter if I'm in the North or the South. Perhaps one day "south" and "north" and "east" and "west" will be archaic references to a primitive, bordered world where nationalism and economic tension pitched the planet into chaos.

The world over, distances are growing shorter between our cardinal points because of the global forces of high technology, free trade, and immigration. Information moves. Commerce moves. People move. The world appears to be spinning faster everyday; analyzing the dizzying pace of the movement is an ever more daunting task. Indian rebellion in Chiapas, President Mandela in South Africa, race riots in Los Angeles, a holocaust in Bosnia, Communist Hong Kong. . . . It is an appropriate way to end the second millenium. Ends of centuries always bring out the apocalyptic--and the idealistic--in human beings. For our end-of-century, the apocalyptic can be seen in the religious and ethnic conflicts, in the growing intolerance of "otherness." The idealistic is the impulse towards "one world" that embraces its diverse "others." The collision of these visions has brought us to the brink of a global civil war.

"Distant Relations" features artists from two regions that epitomize the global crisis, and that also point towards the kind of cultural and political negotiations necessary to achieve a peaceful resolution of our conflicts. Like most Americans, I know few particulars of the Irish conflict. I know that until recently we only heard a British perspective of what was happening, and because I'm Catholic, I naturally sympathize with my spiritual brethren. Perhaps romantically, I see in the IRA a European corollary of the revolutionary movements on my continent: the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación) in El Salvador, the Indian rebels of Chiapas. While I abhor violence, I intimately know histories of peoples who arrived at armed struggle because all other avenues of negotiation had failed. Such was the case in El Salvador. Such is the case today in Chiapas. I suspect that such has been the case in Ireland. The tragedy of conflict on the military level is that all sides ultimately lose their humanity. Each side assumes that the "other" must be destroyed, when the truth is that the moment a settlement is reached, we'll probably have to learn to live with the "other" all over again. . . .

But back to Mexico City. I told you that I am here because I didn't feel completely at home in my first city, Los Angeles. I'm also here because I want to join the people who cross frontiers in the Americas--the immigrants from the south, the new pilgrims. Since I grew up between Latin America and the U.S., between English and Spanish, between the Catholicism of the South and the Protestantism of the North, I feel it's my birthright to be part of that frenetic movement. Everything and everyone is crossing the line that stretches for 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States. AT&T and the Indian teenager from Oaxaca, Mexican-produced automobile parts and MTV en español.

The issues of free trade and immigration have sparked one of the biggest political and cultural debates in the history of the United States. There are only two sides to this conflict. There are those--mostly older, white Americans--who would seal off the border with Mexico and the rest of Latin America, because they fear being overwhelmed by the immigrants. And there are those--the immigrants themselves and a few visionary Americans--who see in the future a borderless world, a continental identity.

It is an old dream. There've been hints of it in great thinkers of both the U.S. and Latin America. Simón Bolívar, the "liberator" of the independence movements of the 19th century, dreamed of a unified Latin republic stretching from the Southwestern United States to Tierra del Fuego. And one of the Americas' greatest bards, Walt Whitman, poeticized a cosmic, international vision of the continent.

At this point, it is the nativ-ists of the U.S. who are winning the debate, as they have on so many occasions in the last 150 years. Catholic immigrants were suspect from the mid-19th century onward. Asians were barred from entering the country at the turn of the century. And Mexicans have been deported en masse on two occasions in the last seventy-five years, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and in the postwar economic decline of the 1950s. We are on the verge of yet another such tragic chapter today.

In California last November, voters passed Proposition 187, a measure that will bar "illegal aliens" from receiving most forms of public assistance (including education and health care), should it ever be approved by the courts currently reviewing the law's glaring constitutional contradictions. Many otherwise reasonable people, mostly white, but also black and Asian and even a smattering of Latino U.S. citizens, voted in favor of Proposition 187. Most of them would deny that they are racists. And yet they voted for a measure that clearly targets one ethnic group, and that sets in motion forces that have already begun to affect not only those "illegals" that the law singles out, but anyone with brown skin or with a slightly accented English. Since the election, there have been hundreds of reports across the state of zealots attempting to enforce the law in vigilante fashion. At a restaurant in Santa Paula, a customer asked the Mexican-looking cook for his "green card" (the identification that legal residents carry). At a Palm Springs pharmacy, the mother of a sick child was asked to show her daughter's proof of citizenship. In these and countless other cases, the people targeted were U.S. citizens.

The California middle class has come to view immigration, free trade, and the failure of the old aerospace and automobile industries (the state's economic backbone up until the mid-1980s) as, at the least, interrelated, and, at worst, cause and effect. Californians voted through the distorted prism of their fears last November, fears born out of economic uncertainty that were expertly exploited by the tiny minority of full-fledged racists that promoted Prop. 187. Wherever we look these days--in the former Soviet Union, in Europe, in the Americas--voters seem to be sending desperate messages. The pendulum swings back and forth rapidly, a sure sign that fear is moving people, rather than visionary thinking or even just plain common sense.

Mexicans also voted their fears. In last year's presidential election, they voted the status quo; in Mexico, the status quo, the ruling PRI party (Institutional Revolutionary Party), is synonymous with the forces of reaction. I spent the summer months of 1994 in Mexico, writing about the dramatic changes occurring in my second home. Long viewed by the rest of the world as a colorful culture trapped in a folkloric past of mariachis, macho heroes, and lascivious señoritas, I found a Mexico on the move. Seventy years of authoritarian rule are giving way to a more open, democratic society. Mexican teenagers are experimenting with cultural influences from their northern neighbor and creating hybrids--rocanrol--that, far from being a sign of cultural death, show the country to be on the cutting edge of urban popular culture. Meanwhile, the rebellion in Chiapas finally brought to the forefront the condition of the Indian and the responsibility of the mixed-race, or mestizo, castes.

It was a year of living dangerously in Mexico. Political assassinations shook the country's sense of security, and Chiapas raised the specter of all-out civil war. Above all, 1994 revealed the true Mexico: a country rent by class and ethnic tension. Last year's events told us that Mexico is not one, but many; that the benefit of economic liberalization (under former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, nearly all of the government's state-owned companies were sold off to private interests) has so far been for the elites, and not for the tiny middle class or the vast, impoverished masses, such as the Indians of the south. Mexico will either learn to live with its new, heterogeneous self, by bringing social and economic justice to all its regions and ethnic communities, or it will crumble into chaos.

I opt for the optimistic view of Mexico. After nearly a century of government-controlled, ultranationalist rhetoric that stifled critical thinking, independent artists and intellectuals, Indian guerrillas, and growing legions of urban activists are now powerful protagonists in the country's intense debate over its future. Seen in the best light, Mexico is embracing the otherness that it had rejected for so long, both the other of the North (the United States, with its culture of individualism and tradition of democratic debate) and the other of the South (the Indian's mystical and communitarian millenary culture).

Yes, Mexicans voted for the PRI last August. But they didn't vote for the party's infamous corruption and anti-democratic traditions. Mexicans appeared to be saying one thing in the voting booth but quite another in their everyday lives. They voted for the PRI, but they are participating in protest marches more than ever before. They voted for the PRI, but most Mexicans are sympathetic to the rebellion in Chiapas--long as it doesn't cause an all-out civil war. The message is: we are changing, we want to continue changing, but we don't want change so radical that we spin out of control.

California's vote for Prop. 187 is more problematic, because it calls for change, but in a clearly reactionary direction. It seeks to turn back the clock of the continent's movement toward cultural and economic integration: keep those dirty Mexicans out of the States. The only hope that I can glean from the electoral results is that the majority who voted for this vicious legislation are rapidly becoming the minority in California. Even if 187 is fully implemented one day and massive deportations begin, everything the law seeks to detain has already, in effect, occurred. The vast majority of Latino immigrants in California are legal residents, and they will become citizens shortly. Mexican political theorist Jorge Castañeda has said that an "electoral apartheid" exists today in California, where a minority of white voters dictate the conditions that the Latino working-class majority lives under. The revolution that will overturn this system will be a demographic one.

The minority-becoming-the-majority could be seen on the streets of Los Angeles during the days leading up to the November elections. In the biggest political demonstration in the city's history, some 150,000 activists turned out to protest Prop. 187. Spontaneous walk-outs at dozens of middle and high schools in the Los Angeles area peaked a few weeks before the election when 20,000 students left classes and took to the streets waving Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan flags as a sign of pride in a culture the students felt was being denigrated by the pro-187 campaign.

The flag-waving was quickly denounced by the nativist forces, who outrageously alleged that the immigrant students were proclaiming allegiance to foreign powers. While the flags may indeed have been a political wash for the students, they were also a sign that Latinos were coming together as never before in California. For in the October Movement, as the anti-187 campaign came to be called, the recently arrived Mexican joined the third-generation Chicano, and the Central American immigrant was recognized by those of Mexican origin as an obvious ally rather than as competition in the job market.

The real test of the October Movement, however, was in taking this newfound Latino unity and creating a viable coalition with other ethnic groups. If the ultimate lesson of the rebellion in Chiapas is that Indian and mestizo must work together to achieve social justice (as black and white did during the U.S. Civil Rights movement), the battle over 187 in California once again showed that multiethnic coalitions based on mutual self- interest are the only way progressive forces can achieve their goals. On this count, the October Movement failed. Nearly 80 percent of Latinos voted against Prop. 187, about two-thirds of whites voted for it, while Asians and African Americans each voted about fifty-fifty. Had the Latino student vanguard been able to sway significant numbers beyond its ethnic borders, the outcome of the election would have been far different.

Yet, like the rebels in Chiapas, the student movement in California --the most significant political mobilization in the United States since the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the early 1980s--remains a powerful political and moral sign. If the greatness of the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was the way in which African Americans convinced a plurality of white Americans that equality in a democracy must indeed be for all, the October Movement has the possibility of doing the same in the 90s. The Chicano activist must not only defend the Mexican immigrant, he or she must also decry the erosion of civil rights for African Americans and the sinister, latent anti-Asian sentiment in California. The Chicano in California can serve as the same moral example as the Indian in Mexico.

In the weeks following the electoral debacle of November, I sat in on a number of student movement meetings. Besides the understandable frustration and depression over the results, a battle for the soul of the movement was taking place. Fervent Chicano nationalists espousing separatist ideals clashed with their "internationalist" counterparts who pleaded for a broad-based coalition. The latter emerged as the leading ideology. One powerful contingent of the original October Movement rechristened itself the "Four Winds Student Movement," a name that refers as much to Native American mythology as to the concept of multiethnic organizing.

I write this from Mexico City, a few days before I return to Los Angeles. After a month back in my first home, I will return again to Mexico. This is my future: to endlessly cross the false frontiers that separate us politically and that keep us from seeing the continent as it truly is. Personally, I can no longer see the struggles in Mexico and California as politically or even contextually different. Rather, I see the continent as one in its many-ness. The rebellion in Chiapas is the Student Movement in California.

Through its year of living dangerously, Mexico has begun, however tentatively, however painfully, to embrace its northern and southern othernesses. Chicanos, African Americans, white Americans, and Asian Americans in the U.S. must do the same. There are only two futures possible for the Americas as we approach the millenium. There is a Mexico coming to understand its Indian-ness and regional complexity, a U.S. learning to embrace, once again, its immigrant self. Or a Mexico that turns its back on both Chiapas and democracy, and a U.S. that denies its multiracial soul. We can embrace or avoid this truth: that the Mexican conflict is the "multicultural" struggle in the U.S., that the Indian in Mexico is the native person or the immigrant in the U.S., that the racist in the U.S. is the one who delivered the Indian into near-slavery in Mexico.

We catch glimpses of our possible futures. One day, the Latin American presidents and Bill Clinton announce the formation of the biggest free trade zone in the world; the next, we hear that the proponents of Prop. 187 in California are now poised to make theirs a national campaign against the immigrant. In one moment, we hear Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo proclaiming that there will be no more armed conflict in Chiapas; the next, we are told that some 60,000 federal troops have surrounded the Indian communities in the jungles.

These are the contradictions and lies that artists and intellectuals the world over must grapple with as we near the millenium. We must overcome the distortion of the politics of separateness, which is the politics of the old order. We must be the visionaries, the ones who dare to compare the Irish situation to the Mexican and Chicano contexts, the ones who dare to recognize ourselves in the "other."


John Valadez, Clavo, 1983; courtesy of Daniel Saxon Gallery,Los Angeles



John Valadez, Going Out of Business, 1991; courtesy of Daniel Saxon Gallery, Los Angeles.





Rubén Martínez can be reached at: