We’ve been here before. America has had a love-hate relationship with its Mexican population for centuries. Whether it is not being able to find a permanent solution to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), separating immigrant children from their parents or casting undocumented persons as criminals and rapists, these vile expressions of hatred against Mexicans have existed for centuries.
America loves to vilify and dehumanize Mexicans, despite our historic contributions to the U.S. economy. Traditionally, when the economy is flourishing and needs low-wage laborers, we’re the go-to help. But when the economy is in decline, we become the targets for everything that is wrong with our country. In the current political climate, we’re “the other,” to be feared as the reason America is no longer great. But we have long been a part of the fabric of America.
Mexicans are the oldest and newest of immigrants. Many Mexican-Americans can trace their heritage to what is now the Southwest U.S. Mexico ceded two-thirds of its land, which included California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Colorado and Wyoming after a two-year war and a “peace treaty.”
After the war and subsequent treaty 115,000 Mexican residents remained in the territory. Ironically, the land that most Mexican immigrants are migrating to now was once Mexican territory. In fact, cities like San Antonio, Los Angeles, El Paso, and, my hometown, Santa Fe, NM were all thriving Mexican cities before the arrival of the Americans.
After the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846 (the Mexican-American War), the “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo” in 1848 guaranteed the remaining Mexicans protection of their land. This promise was short lived.
After the “treaty” was signed, the U.S. Senate deleted the protection of Mexican land grants, and subsequently, many people lost property rights to their own land. My family was then left with no choice but to migrate for work.
My ancestors migrated to present-day New Mexico in 1598, more than 10 years before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. They fled Spain and Mexico during the Inquisition.
They were Spanish Jews who, like so many other immigrants, feared for their lives because of their religious practice. Some were killed along their journey; others were enslaved. After surviving the perilous journey they were granted land through both Spanish and Mexican land grants and began a new life. However, when the Norteamericanos began to outnumber Mexicans in the territory and U.S. Imperialist interests won, most native New Mexicans found themselves displaced and landless.
Even after the people of New Mexico approved a constitution in 1850, we would not be granted statehood until 1912. Race figured prominently in Congress’ eventual vote admitting our state. During the debates, New Mexicans were referred to as savages, barbarians, and a race unfit for self-government and unworthy of citizenship.
My great-grandfather and his son worked like slaves in the mines of Southern Colorado in the early 1900’s. My grandfather, Jose, lost his hands after an accident in the mine. They replaced his hands with hooks. His father died at the age of 32 from congestive heart failure caused by black lung and the deplorable working and living conditions of their time. Mexican families, including mine, lived as campesinos, or peasants, in a shantytown on the outskirts.
My ancestors organized the first Catholic Church for Mexican-Americans, Sacred Heart Parish in Durango, Colo.; and then a Teamsters union. They used the leverage they had as an organized group of laborers to demand better wages, working conditions, and even housing in the town. My ancestors were as determined to create a better life for themselves as recent immigrants who come with an incredible work ethic and a determination to make a better life for their children.
My family history is deeply rooted in the reason why I am a community organizer who works with the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation. I know the struggle for all people who face discrimination and persecution continues.
Much of my work as an organizer has been with Mexicans in Texas, either on the border of El Paso or in the Dallas Metro Area. They come to this country with the same desire as my family to have una vida mejor (a better life). They are honest, hard-working people who face many injustices, from living in the shadows of being undocumented, to the fear of calling the police when they are crime victims. They often are robbed of their wages without recourse because they have no legal status.
Immigrants bring various levels of labor to an economy that desperately needs it. It is estimated that 20,000 certified teachers, many of them bilingual, will be lost if a permanent solution isn’t found for DACA.
Our country has created this problem. For hundreds of years, the Mexican border was fluid; laborers came for work and then returned to Mexico. We have sent troops and militarized the U. S. Mexico border even though border crossings are the lowest they’ve been since 1971.
So what’s the fear about? Our numbers. One in six Americans are Hispanic and, by 2050, it’s expected to be one in four. Currently, 93 percent of Latinos under 18 are American Citizens, and every year around 900,000 become eligible to vote. My hope for the next generation, including my 4-year-old son Diego, is that they vote and become active participants in our democracy. New immigrant citizens are becoming a large voting bloc that cannot be ignored. Maybe they can finally end our battle for equality that has been centuries in the making.
Josephine López Paul is lead organizer with Dallas Area Interfaith, part of the Industrial Areas Foundation, and a Dallas GreenHouse Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.