The most recent issue of the Point—the Chicago magazine of philosophical writing named for south-side Promontory Point—wrestles with the question posed on its cover: "What is America for?" One way they're approaching the question is to ask people who recently came here "Why?,"and then, what the reception was when they did. To this end, earlier this month the Point cosponsored a panel discussion with Contratiempo, a Chicago magazine of Hispanic literature and culture, at the Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen. A video of the event is now online.
The panel, moderated by the Point's managing editor, Rachel Wiseman, focused exclusively on immigration from Latin American countries. I attended the event, and at the time, that focus bothered me a little. (I said so during the Q&A.) To me, the issues raised by Latino immigration and Muslim immigration have become inseparable—fears of Mexicans sneaking into the country to take our jobs and fears of Arabs sneaking into our country to blow up our buildings having been adroitly mushed together to create a miasma of xenophobia that defeats clear thought on either front.
Nevertheless, the Latino focus gave the evening its highlight. A young man stepped to the mike and introduced himself as a 27-year-old millennial, a member of a generation that has "at their fingertips, the greatest wealth of information available possible," as he put it. And not simply information about our history, but a vast array of "views and perspectives" on it.
"I have had the luxury of not having as much patriotism spoon-fed to me as previous generations of Latinos," he said. What he could not understand, he declared, was why Latinos in the U.S. "identify as Americans—why we are patriotic, why we volunteer to join the military that often times has trained death squads in Latin America, that has supported coups all over Latin America, that has resulted in genocide, rape, torture, all over, not just Latin America but the entire world."
"As I learn more and more," he said, "the mythos of the United States I had, what little patriotism I had pretty much went out the door. I'm no longer patriotic at all. Quite the opposite. . . . I can understand why previous generations would choose to be patriotic, because they had no choice but to assimilate, but for the modern Latino I don't see why anyone would want to consider themselves either American or to consider themselves 'patriotic' in any sense of the word. When I see the massacres of—"
At this point Wiseman interrupted him, and asked him to frame a question.
"Well, this is the question," he said. "Perhaps you can clarify this for me: Why is it that people, especially Latinos, still consider themselves patriotic and American in a nation that is the greatest terrorist nation on the planet?"
A response of "But it isn't"might be true, but on this occasion it wouldn't have sufficed. "Maybe so, but it's still the greatest nation on earth"would've landed with a thud. The panelists blinked a time or two, and Jennifer Patiño Cervantes, a writer and archivist, was first to respond.
"I share a lot of your views," she said. "I've been learning about the death squads, and the School of the Americas, and the overthrow of governments in Latin America since I was in high school. And I don't think that thinking of myself as American is the same thing as being patriotic. Sometimes I feel that deciding to call myself American is itself an act of rebellion. Because I'm here. People don't want to see me as American, and screw that, right? I think for me, when I decide to view myself as American, it is so I can manifest what I feel this country should be."
The response made me think about how Latino immigrants, though they're defended as merely the latest in a long line of nourishing newcomers, are indeed exceptional. When waves of immigrants sailed here from Ireland, Germany, and Poland, the U.S. was a remote, indifferent land of opportunity; as their abandoned homelands' histories had unfolded, America had no skin in the game.
That wasn't true with Filipinos, Koreans, or Vietnamese. The people of those countries got to know us as we fought wars on their soil. And the Monroe Doctrine, if nothing else—and there's a lot else—has seen to it that America has plenty of skin in Latin America's game. Mexico, for one, lost a third of its territory in 19th-century warfare against the U.S., and we came back to occupy the port of Vera Cruz in 1914. The point of the Iran-Contra affair, the scandal that stained Ronald Reagan's presidency, was to overthrow the left-wing elected government of Nicaragua. And only the most deluded Cuban emigre fleeing Castro could think of the United States as a benign neighbor.
Whether they want to dwell on it or not, today's Latino immigrants arrive with a case they can already make against their new home. How different does this shared history make them? Should we insist all new Americans arrive starry-eyed?