Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen's recent racist remarks reminded me of my own childhood racism against immigrants. Unlike him, I have seen the future of immigration in America, and it is good.
My military family moved to San Antonio during the late 1950’s, my middle school years. We had moved eight times before, years I spent in overseas post schools with middle-class multiracial/multiethnic classmates. Transferring now to a San Antonio “off-post” public school, I was surprised to be thrown in among many desperately poor Hispanics, and shocked to see their harsh treatment by my Anglo classmates.
Although some teachers treated all students respectfully, the consensus about “Meskins” among the Anglos in my school was that they were dirty, poor, immoral, violent, sneaky, and “too stupid” to speak English. The filter of racism soon blurred my own eyes, too, to the differences among these children, and eventually I clumped them all, even the occasional middle-class and native-English speaking exceptions, into a single rejected race.
Through whispered conversations, I “found out” what my schoolmates “knew”—that all these kids were children of “illegals” who had snuck across “the river” and were no doubt now sneaking around in bushes and backrooms doing filthy jobs our parents wouldn't dream of doing, living in hovels, probably stealing and breaking other laws too. We exchanged warnings about their poor side of town: “Don’t go near the San Antonio River unless you want to get knifed by a 'Mex'!” My wealthiest friends even bragged about “'owning' a ‘wet’ (‘wetback’) or two” hidden away on distant ranches in shacks stocked with sacks of beans, left to chop cedar at pennies a day.
Gradually I conformed, and viewed immigrants with suspicion and disgust. Sometimes we sneered at them, occasionally fought them, but mostly we ignored them. How quickly I went from feeling righteously indignant about their mistreatment, to apathy, to feeling more “in the know” and “appropriate” about how to feel and act—that is, prejudicially.
Needless to say, I knew nothing about racism, or about how hard it is to get ahead when you’re poor, or about the immense barriers of linguistic disadvantage, or the challenges of a new life in a different culture, especially an illegal life. I saw without seeing only the glaring commonalities of poverty, for indeed, many of my Hispanic classmates were dirty, their clothes were smelly, and their poor English made them seem ignorant.
I’m especially saddened to recall how kind many of the Hispanic children were to me at first, how attractive and fun they seemed to this lonely new girl. Too quickly, I came to “know better,” pulling away from them, frightened by the stronger social prohibitions against socializing with “Mexes.” I'm sure my cruel transformation and confused withdrawal hurt many feelings.
Fast-forward now to forty years later, to the recent year I returned to San Antonio to care for my dying father. To my astonishment, I found a completely changed San Antonio, a bright working city ornamented by a proud Hispanic cultural heritage. During that difficult year of family losses, every one of my childhood prejudices were firmly replaced with admiration and deep gratitude for the long line of outstanding care-giving and service professionals who helped me—nearly all native-English speaking, educated, middle and upper-class Hispanics.
From that ragtag bunch of schoolmates of yesteryear, no doubt largely parented by penniless, uneducated laborers who braved their way across the border, came this impressive line of smiling, capable, courteous, faith-driven professionals. Where “Meskins” were previously relegated only to San Antonio’s lowest social classes, now they were the home-care aides who tenderly washed and fed my father, the capable nurses who treated him, the orderlies who gently attended him in hospital, the dedicated doctors who set his broken hip, the hospice workers who comforted us, the owners of the funeral home, and the directors who helped us plan his funeral.
Hispanics now ably run much of the city, blending in with the Anglo minority attractively and patriotically. As I hurried through busy days, helpful Hispanic faces sold me groceries and hardware, delivered our packages, repaired our dishwasher, patrolled our streets, and repaired our phone. My father’s accountant was Hispanic, as was his attorney.
I recalled then my youthful astonishment when I overheard talk about nationally respected local “Meskins” such as Henry B. Gonzalez and Henry Cisneros, who later transformed the city for Hemisfair, refurbishing the San Antonio River Walk to become one of the world’s safest and most colorful international tourist attractions. I couldn't imagine then how these apparently benevolent leaders could possibly be drawn from the same racial pool I had learned to exclude from my personal repertoire of “nice people.” Or perhaps, even, “human beings?”
The San Antonio of today is a multicultural treat, largely run by courteous, ambitious Hispanics. Every Hispanic I met during that painful year was a genial, earnest, hard-working, well-intentioned person demonstrating solid values.
Welcome to the America of the future, Sen. Allen, and more power to it.
Immigrants break no laws they ever had a chance to democratically vote on. Immigrants are doing exactly what every one of us would do for ourselves and for our families, were we faced with an impossible present and future…and were we as daring and persistent as they.
Only the United States spends billions to guard its borders from terrorists (although quite a few nations are presently scrambling to arm themselves against American invasions.) No expensive walls are being built to keep terrorists out of Canada, China, Norway, or Sweden, although each of these countries has a similarly long, porous border. Unlike the U.S.A., however, they have friendly, cooperative foreign policies—i.e., fewer enemies.
When we elect leaders committed to creating fewer deadly enemies with hurtful trade and foreign policies, when we generously embrace the world’s problems as our own, then we will spend far less money on war and security, and have more to spend on a better life for ourselves and the immigrants we need to help make this country great again. Hopefully, some day soon, many more of these adventurers will claim for themselves that same bright prize our audacious American forebearers claimed throughout our history, that grandest lottery ticket gamble of all, the chance to win U.S. citizenship.
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