The immigration-reform debate has gripped the country and enflamed passions. Hate groups, along with mainstream media, have engaged in facile assumptions about Mexican immigration, often leading to racist stereotypes and opening the door to extremist ideology. The advent of new technology aggravates the spread of xenophobia as commentators hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, and fact gathering is replaced by speculation.
For those who monitor and respond to extremism at the border, hate crimes against Latinos and the victimization of new immigrants, Gregory Rodgriguez's new book, "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America," is a welcome resource, detailing the history, politics and patterns of Mexican immigration. His academic approach and extensive research provide much-needed factual information. His humor and straightforward style keep the reader engaged and curious. And his conclusions are well reasoned and accessible.
Rodriguez takes us through a history lesson that tells the story of Mexican immigration through the lens of his premise that the Latin American concept of mestizaje (racial and cultural synthesis) has influenced and will continue to influence America's view of race. He starts in the 16th century with the story of the first Spanish expeditions to Mexico and their mixed race progeny who blended Spanish, Indian, Black, Aztec and Christian customs.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California were colonized by missionaries who were predominantly mestizos. In these areas, there was only a brief interlude between the Spanish period, which ended when Mexico became an independent federal republic in 1824, and the American period, ranging from 1839 in Texas to 1851 in California.
Even before statehood in California, the Mexican upper class accepted the immigration of working-class United States citizens looking for a better life.
"We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants who have already begun to flock into our country and whose progress we cannot arrest," said California's last Mexican governor, Pío Pico. "Whatever that astonishing people will next undertake I cannot say, but on whatever enterprise they embark they will be sure to be successful."
Californian hospitality to the American immigrants, motivated by the stimulus to the economy that the influx of cheap labor supplied, continued even after Mexico City attempted to curb foreign immigration.
The irony of this particular history is hard to miss.
A reversal of fortune occurred in Anglo-Mexican relations as the government structure in the Southwest shifted from Mexican to American. Between 1850 and 1930, extralegal violence in the Southwest resulted in more deaths of Mexican Americans than African Americans.
Mexican immigration rose during this period and into the 20th century as mining and agriculture business grew. Anglos made no distinction between citizens and non-citizens.
"To them, a Mexican was a Mexican," Rodriguez writes.
Rodriguez details the history of the Mexican American response -- starting with opposition to the use of Mexican labor.
"No careful distinctions are made between illegal aliens and local citizens of Mexican descent," former League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) director George Sánchez said in 1951. "The ‘wet' migration ... has set the whole assimilation process back at least twenty years."
Yet, three short years later, opposition no longer sufficed as a strategy and LULAC spoke out against inhumane deportation efforts. In the 1960s, the Chicano movement emerged and, by the 1970s, the Southwest Council of La Raza helped to establish community-based organizations and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) pursued hundreds of lawsuits to challenge segregation and discrimination.
During the 1980s, California's Latino population, 80 percent of Mexican origin, enjoyed unprecedented acceptance into the middle class. The population grew by 67 percent, half due to immigration, so that Latinos made up a quarter of the state.
More Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1990s than in any previous decade, most of them without documentation. But, by the turn of the 21st century, the foreign-born were no longer the fastest growing portion of the population and, by 2040, the third-generation Mexican American population is projected to triple while the second generation will double.
Rodriguez weaves recurring themes throughout the book. As in the 1930s and 1940s, U.S.-born Mexican Americans will "shift the cultural balance of Mexican America from immigrant to ethnic American culture." Today, we see once again dual trends of increased anti-immigrant sentiment and mobilization by Mexican Americans to become citizens. And we see again how the Mexican American view of race, class and assimilation is reflected in the mirror America holds up to itself.
Rodriguez's thorough study and articulate presentation will help anyone who advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and speaks out against bigotry of all kinds. But even the casual observer of race and society in America will find the book enlightening and accessible.
Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League's Pacific Southwest Region.