Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sadness in the State of the Union

I am a product of Southern California. I was born here nearly fifty years ago. I have lived here, with one brief exception, for nearly that entire fifty years. I admittedly spent most of my early years living in what many would call a "white bread" suburb near (but not too near) Los Angeles. By the time I reached high school, however, I think it's safe to say that I lived in as culturally diverse a community as you could hope to find.

I have never had a skin-color prejudice. I have recognized cultural differences between skin colors, certainly; but whatever opinions I harbor of people do not generally begin with what color they happen to be.

With that in mind, I found myself driving past our community center this evening and assuming it was Bingo night. Then I saw a small bus parked near our mailboxes and realized it belonged to a mariachi band. Ah. A party.

Then the current state of the union kicked in and I caught myself wondering if someone should notify INS.

It never used to be this way. Not growing up, anyway. Sure there were times that the INS might raid one of the communities on the outskirts of town. They'd net 10, maybe 20 people and it would be big news in the next day's paper. We were never conscious of an "immigration problem" in those days. Back then, illegal aliens were talked about in whispers, or demonized in the press when speaking of Cesar Chavez and his workers' rights protests and boycotts. There would be some "extreme" events, and the issue would just as quickly subside.

Now, however, between the war on terror and the immigration issue (no matter on which side of those issues you may stand), I am no longer allowed to pass by what was very likely a huge family party — perhaps a wedding or a quinceañera — without having to think what some people apparently consider to be arrogantly superior thoughts. In the eyes of some that automatically lumps me in the same class as a white supremacist, and I hate it.

I lived for two years as a legal alien among the people of Guatemala many years ago. I was definitely in the minority in this country of multiple minorities. Being a gringo was bad enough; I was also working among the poorest class of people in their society, and was believed by many to be merely an exploiter. I was accused of being a spy for Jimmy Carter (one of the only charges that ever made me bristle with indignation), or working for the CIA. These were common problems for young men who wore white shirts and ties in an area of the world where such attire was patently absurd to most observers. Easier to take were the reactions of those same poor people who watched suspiciously as we walked down their dirt roads. Mothers would gather their children hurriedly around them and push them into their huts whenever we passed.

One incident that still brings a smile to my face even now: a mother and her two children saw us coming a good 100 yards or so down the road. She quickly gathered her children to her; two youngsters of between 3 and 5 years. As we passed by I heard her tell them in their Mayan dialect that we were monsters from another land who would steal children so we could eat them. At first I thought to merely ignore the comment. The actor in me, however, could never let such a great cue alone. I turned my face in their direction and gave them a very child-eating menacing grimace. The kids shrieked and hid behind their mother. To her I merely smiled and winked. She gave me a very guilty and sheepish grin in return, and I believe she fully understood that I had no intention of ever stealing her precious babies.

Thirty full years forward and things in this land have deteriorated. It's no longer a simple matter of false impressions or misguided beliefs. We are torn between two very competitive needs. On the one hand we desire to be friendly with our neighbors, both domestic and foreign. We want to be members of the international "community" and contribute to the common good of all people. On the other hand we fear for our national security and welfare. Our communities are overflowing with welfare families who place increasing burdens on our infrastructure, both economically and socially. Basically thirty years (probably only because these are the years that I've actually been aware of the problem) of nearly unchecked immigration, coupled with increasing levels of mutual suspicion and antagonism.

Shame on me for having even a fleeting thought of calling in INS on a party just because they happened to be playing mariachi music tonight. (For the record: Woody can only handle just so much mariachi music, thanks primarily to those very missionary experiences I mentioned above. Two years of "Aaaaah-haaaaaaaah!" in falsetto and accompanied by accordians have driven me to classify mariachi music right along with grunge, punk, and rap combined. About one "Aaaaah-haaaaaaah!" is enough to last me for at least five years nowadays. If that qualifies as a prejudice, then call me a bigot.)

That thought, as temporary as it was, made me feel somehow dirty. It gave me the sense of being someone whose outlook had become so polarized as to be unreasoning in nature. And that is not who I am. For all our rhetoric about immigration and national security, this is not who we as a nation are. We are a nation of immigrants. We always have been and we always will be. Somewhere along the line, however, we created an atmosphere where immigrants needed a voice to declare to them that it was somehow acceptable to be in this land without ever being of this land. We enabled those who claim that a cultural (read: non-American) identity is the only acceptable identity, and that automatically puts us on a war footing with those with whom we would otherwise be neighbors.

Such is the sadness of the state of our union. I pray we can somehow push through this conflict and return to idea of building America, rather than being mutually exclusive clusters of semi-American citizens.

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