Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Latino Threat | Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation

Nonfiction review: 'The Latino Threat'
(Heads up by "The Unapologetic Mexican", thanks Nezua!)

Monday, October 13, 2008

By Leo R. Chavez

(Bio & more books by this Author)

Stanford; 288 pages; $55/$21.95 paperback

Leo R. Chavez, a cultural anthropology professor at UC Irvine, is patient and careful. No matter how racist and stupid and infuriating the fearmongers like the Minutemen vigilantes and assorted right-wing radio hosts and columnists are about the so-called Latino threat, Chavez meticulously reiterates or quotes their charges and then tidily corrects them, unfortunately not quite so energetically and amusingly as the doctor in Kurosawa's "Red Beard," who breaks the villains' arms and then immediately mends them.

As Chavez proceeds through his study in "The Latino Threat," he doesn't free us to rage; he keeps us focused on the Styrofoam horse the anti-immigrants have glued together from spit and fearful imagination and wheeled into our fair Troy:

"In the final analysis, the discourse surrounding Latina fertility and reproduction is actually about more than reproduction. It is also about reinforcing a characterization of whites as the legitimate Americans who are being supplanted demographically by less-legitimate Latinos. For this reason, the empirical evidence examined here may be easily dismissed by those who prefer perpetuating a discourse that undermines Latino claims of citizenship."

That is, he knows those who foment terror of the "threat" of brown babies are not likely to listen to facts when they have deep-rooted prejudices to express. Among the biggest threats undocumented immigrants pose is that their vulnerability and our scapegoating of them for taking jobs we won't do allow American citizens to expose themselves as hypocrites.

Not only do we fear illegal immigrants and, of course, continue to hire them for wages and under conditions few citizens would accept, but we also demonize them and, no more decently, discount the real contributions of legal immigrants as well as of the multigenerational citizens who happen to have Spanish-sounding last names.

Chavez examines the clamor raised by national magazines and in the 1990s by books and concludes: "It was as if Mexican Americans and other Latinos existed in an ahistorical space apart from the life that took place all around them. They were cast as 'alien-citizens,' perpetual foreigners with divided allegiances despite being U.S. citizens by birth, even after many generations." They're not Americans, they're Latinos.

So almost everything you've heard about Latinos as a culture - or that there is such a thing as a distinct identifiable Latino culture in the United Sates - is, if you look at it with patience and research, either wrong or no more true of Latinos than of other Americans. It just doesn't take very long for most immigrants to become "American," for good (economic standing, social and political participation, national pride) and bad (by the second generation, immigrants usually succumb to our poorer diets, our indifference to education, our earlier and more promiscuous sexual activities).

But those pale ones fearing the "browning" of America never seem to think once, much less twice, before spouting off, intolerant in spite of professing a tolerant religion and unhindered by facts or history. Chavez occasionally despairs of trying to summarize nonsense and lets the speakers explain their own views.

Chavez is so cool and gentle in his corrections of the knuckleheads who pretend that their "patriotism" is anything but racism that it's hard not to wish that he'd really let loose once in a while. He's earned it! Shouldn't an informed and knowledgeable person get to deliver a shot or three? But that's not Chavez's style.

Niceness is a grand quality, but it's not much fun, so while "The Latino Threat" is educationally plain and clear, it's also slow. "The trouble with kindness is that it takes a long time," as the professor and critic Marvin Mudrick once told his classroom of creative-writing students. "If it were possible to be kind as quickly as it is possible to be cruel and funny, I would be kind all the time."

Chavez's very civil "discourse" is a deliberate and considered choice. He shows that the Latino threat of "reconquista" by U.S. citizens (with those telltale Latino last names) and even by undocumented workers (their one-day peaceful walk-out protest in 2006 created a right-wing tizzy) is no threat at all, and is evidence rather of our own bad conscience regarding race and hard work, and that those who pose Latinos as a threat are at best irresponsible. We all would have benefited from taking college courses with such a good, even-keeled man who suffers the fools and educates the rest of us.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English in Brooklyn. E-mail him at books@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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