Disliking Mexicans

Disliking Mexicans

What brought all of this about was a trip to Home Depot, where for the first time, I noticed that virtually all of the section signs were in English and Spanish. It’s probably been like this for a long time, although it was the first time I’d paid attention and noticed. At that instant, I wondered how white people felt: were they resentful of the bilingual signs? Did they notice, and if you pointed it out to them, would they care? I’ve been afraid to ask any Caucasians their opinion because I’m convinced they would quickly say “no” since they don’t want to be branded a bigot, as if I’m on some secret mission to out the closet members of the KKK.

But on the subject of ethnic tensions, it also made me think about the attitude I had towards Mexicans while growing up. I don’t speak Spanish very well at all, mostly because my parents never taught it to me as a child. It had to be linked to the mores they were raised in: you don’t speak Spanish. If you speak “that language,” then it demonstrates you aren’t really an American. For my cousins and me (none of them really speak the language at all), conversing in Spanish was a symptom of ignorance. It was something to be looked down on and never to associate with openly. For us, the language was neither romantic nor our heritage, but a badge of shame to be avoided at all costs. Not speaking Spanish might be the reason that I lack any discernible accent while speaking my mother tongue: my English isn’t tinged with any kind of Spanish overtones or drawn out vowels.

That last part would make my father proud, because he was adamant about not being described as “Mexican.” Without hesitation, he instilled in me a sense of Americaness that needed no hyphenation. To be Mexican is to be a citizen of Mexico, he often stated, fully aware that the word could also be used as an ethnic adjective. You aren’t a citizen of Mexico, you are an American. To this day, he loathes hearing the phrase “Mexican-American,” but I have to admit, it’s a tricky proposition when it comes to identity. For my father, being an American does not preclude knowing or embracing your roots, whether your Irish or Hispanic or Asian. My dad’s concept of being an American is actually very embracing — something I don’t often find in the discourse about ethnicity. It seems like we’re always being pigeon-holed into one category or another, and we can only choose to describe ourselves with just a few options on a form asking our “race.” I’m reading more and more stories where people are just simply picking “other,” or selecting as many they feel applies because they feel they’re more than the sum of their parts, and that five circles on said form does their family no justice.

Still, even with society’s embracing of our cultural diversity, I get the feeling that there’s a limit. I think that society just “tolerates” this diversity, rather than accepts it, and there is a difference between the two. When you accept something, you may not care if the signs at Home Depot are in English, Spanish or Chinese. But when you tolerate something, it implies that there’s a barrier; that your understanding is contingent upon staying within certain boundaries. In other words, don’t go overboard with it. So you can speak Spanish but let’s focus on English, shall we? You can speak it out in the open, but try to lower your voice whenever possible. You can be proud of your heritage, but don’t get haughty.

When we talk about tolerance, there’s also an implied threat that the largesse one shows to others can end rather quickly. While many Americans have different opinions about immigration (legal and illegal), I suspect that we demand that these citizen wanna-bees assimilate as quickly as possible and learn English. That’s hardly a revelation, but living in the Southwest with its proximity to Mexico has given me a different perspective, and it all goes back to my childhood. Because of my old prejudices against Mexicans, I often want these newcomers to quickly become Americanized: stop speaking Spanish, lose that telltale accent and start blending in. The faster you’re assimilated, the faster that society will stop thinking of you as Mexican and maybe just as a person of Mexican descent. And if you’re going to live here, why should the election ballots be in Spanish? Why should there be bilingual education? Shouldn’t we embrace being American and learn English as quickly as possible?

It’s quite a pity to say that, because as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a real appreciation for Spanish. Try as I might, I still can’t speak it with the rapidity of my parents (though they rarely speak it nowadays) and since I learned Castilian in school, I have difficulty being understood by them. But in any case, it’s an oddity that we Americans have such an aversion to foreign languages. They’re requirements in most high schools and universities, but we don’t consider them as signs of an educated person. We criticize those who don’t speak English in our midst as being uneducated and unwilling to assimilate. When you localize it to the Southwest — a region controlled by Spain for centuries, mind you — and couple not speaking English with the passions of immigration...well, it’s no surprise that Hispanics are treated as suspect.

It’s difficult to say that, but like I said, my family has a low opinion of Mexicans, and oddly enough, this has made us more sensitive to the perceived racism of white people. Just a couple months ago, I picked up a copy of “Foreign Policy” magazine because of the cover: “José, Can You See?”, an article by Samuel P. Huntington, who coined the phrase “clash of civilizations.” I thumbed through his lengthy article about the “Hispanic threat” (already raising my hackles) and how Hispanics don’t truly assimilate but rather form enclaves of people who refuse to learn English and won’t adopt the country’s Protestant work ethic. We’re here and we’re not changing, is the attitude the author seemed to covey, and because of this, the country was headed for some form of disaster.

I didn’t read the article in its entirety, so I can’t merely write it off or criticize the author as just another paranoid racist who hates brown people. Yet the points I outlined above just bothered me, because it felt like a thin guise of ethnic contempt. But admittedly, that quick conclusion brought to the fore those negative feelings about Mexicans that I’ve been nursing most of my life. If I want them to assimilate so quickly, then how am I any different from Huntington? If I complain that not speaking English among Hispanics is a sign of failure and an embarrassment, how can I get defensive and self-righteous over the same conclusions as the author? At this point, I’m about to toe line and say that for me to complain is “different” from some Caucasian. How many times have you ever heard that? It’s okay for me to criticize Mexicans because I am Hispanic; for a white person to do so means he’s just a bigot.

Now, all of these feelings conflict with my growing love of the Spanish language. While I used to consider Spanish the language of poor, lazy folk, nowadays, I view the ability to communicate in different tongues as an asset, and to appreciate how it’s the mother tongue of hundreds of millions of people who can enjoy Cervantes, Borges or Pablo Neruda. Maybe I’ve fallen for all those global village metaphors, but I consider language as a tool of knowledge and power. As globalization continues its march, I’m seeing more and more products I buy at the supermarket in English, French and Spanish. I visit international news Web sites and I see stories linked in about Courtney Love, and I realize that the world is shrinking, even as so many people across the planet are learning American English. You would think that our polyglot communities would make us all more cosmopolitan, but I think it’s actually more the opposite. We desire conformity and homogeneity, and it seems to all begin with what language you speak. And if you took a street poll comparing Spanish to French, I’d venture to say that French would win out as being more cultured than Spanish, because so many people associate the latter with illegal immigrants or resistance to assimilation.

So, do we Americans just dislike Mexicans? Or, can I make it more palatable and say that Mexicans are just a convenient target because we border Latin America? More convoluted, do we dislike Mexicans because they’re a symbol of our problems with non-English speakers, unassimilated enclaves, bilingual education, lower property values and crime? Hmm, that sounds a little harsh, don’t you think?