Mi Casa es Tu Casa
“They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. That is too much, even for a joke. . . . Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder...”
-- Eugene Debs
“We must love one another or die”
-- W. H. Auden
“Look at the map,” commanded Madam Brown, our twelfth grade Spanish teacher. (We laughed at her behind her back -- her corrugated skin, her imperious, old-world ways. It was rumored that she’d had a Mexican lover!) “Mexico is a cornucopia,” she said, letting the word roll slowly, peering over her horn-rimmed glasses, “a horn of plenty that empties its riches into Los Estados Unidos.”
She had been around the world, ridden camels in Egypt, double-deckers in London, rickshaws in Hong Kong -- showed us pictures to prove it! -- and she found herself in her sixties, in the sterility of Miami Beach Sr. High, confronting our puerilities.
I have reached her venerable age now -- just passed 21,900 days -- and what I regret most, as I look back, is each and every day I failed to deepen my understanding of the great diversity of human life and values; each day I did not reach across divides of race, ethnicity, religion and class to know the human family in its glorious multiplicity and alikeness; and each day I did not speak out against injustice, and the walls and barriers the powerful and privileged and ignorant erect to divide the human family.
We must draw from the well of regrets for wisdom; but we cannot dwell there. Youth, always creating the world anew, will not permit such doleful dwelling. It is a sea that carries every generation forward with its own swelling of pride, songs and power. Old fools try to resist it, building walls against the pummeling surf, or bailing their sinking lifeboats. But they lack the caulk of knowledge and vision and they go down in darkness.
“Si se puede!” they cried in the streets, echoing Dolores Huerta, echoing Cesar Chavez. A million at La Gran Marcha, half a million in Dallas -- millions all over the country, crying, “We can do it! It can be done!”
Our foolish yellow-journalistic, mainstream media banner-headline, “Reconquista!”, conjuring visions of Pancho Villa crossing the border with hordes of sombreroed peasant guerillas. Sensenbrenner and Tancredo play to the basest of their base, prating about Homeland Security and the sanctity of “our borders.”
But there is neither sanctity of borders nor reconquest here. Greater matters are at stake for our security and humanity: a higher definition of what it means to be American in this bludgeoned, fossil-fuel choking, Amazon-burning Western hemisphere; real integration of the various peoples of the two Americas; recognition and renunciation of the distorted, murderous policies of the past; and the ascension and celebration of true human values under the banner of a Great Spirit of mercy and reconciliation.
Not reconquest, but reaffirmation.
And that means recognizing some truths our sports-loving, spectator-democracy will find difficult to swallow. But I know this: this America belongs to the Mexicans and los indios and los africanos as much as it belongs to me or anyone else who was born here. In many ways, it is more their country, though my father, a Sicilian Catholic, and my mother, a Ukrainian Jew, were also born here. But my grandparents were not. And I know this: It is not for the conquistadores -- Spanish or Anglo-Saxon -- to define the parameters of “legal” and “illegal” when their courts and councils of government are established upon illegal wars, genocide, racism, forced treaties, fire and smoke.
Star May 13th on your calendar! On that day, in 2006, we mark the 160th anniversary of the Mexican-American War. We are not apt to herald this event in the United States; we do not commemorate our victory with firecrackers, fireworks, parades and grand speeches -- as John Adams suggested we celebrate our victory over the British. Perhaps 1 percent of non-Latino Americans will remember this anniversary, yet it is crucial that we begin now to reflect upon that terrible war and the way it changed this continent and our world. It is crucial because we cannot escape our past and we shall never move beyond our cultural adolescence unless we reconcile ourselves to our past and to nuestros hermanos y hermanas across the little river. It is time to bind up the nation’s wounds, in Lincoln’s words; and, beyond that, it is time to recognize that Mexico and the United States are becoming one nation. What the Native Americans -- our lost brothers and sisters, our murdered kin -- called Turtle Island will one day stretch not only from “sea to shining sea,” but, likely, from the Baffin Islands and Hudson Bay to the Panama Canal -- an internationalized Panama Canal! Simon Bolivar’s dream of a great democratic republic -- the largest in the world -- encompassing America del Sur now appears to be coalescing as los indios and the European immigrants in our sister continent loosen the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine, declaring independencia! And, El Liberador’s dream can be realized here, as well. A union of peace and mutual self-interests of the peoples of North America is a vision we can embrace or flee from. Are we prepared to grow beyond our adolescent chutzpah now, to unite the energy and idealism of youth with the wisdom of hard-won experience?
One hundred and sixty years ago, the “issue du jour” (George W.) was not the tidal wave of population northward over the Rio Grande, but the “torrent” moving Westward. A decade earlier, “Yankees” (mostly, in fact, from the slave states) had established their own slave republic in the Mexican state of Tejas. Despite increasing pressure and threats from Washington, the newly independent Republic of Mexico (since 1821) had steadfastly refused to accept Tejas autonomy. Fearing re-conquest, the Lone Star Republic sued for annexation -- for absorption into the much larger Slave Republic of the United States. Mexico protested to no avail. In 1845, when Congress voted to bring Texas into the Union, the expansionist Democratic President James Polk (himself a slaveholder) ordered General Zachary Taylor “to proceed with his whole command to the extreme western border of Texas and take up a position on the banks of or near the Rio Grande.”* Of course, this went beyond provocation. The traditional boundary of Tejas had been the Nueces River, about 150 miles north -- and this had been recognized by both the U.S. and Mexico.
As regards borders -- the prerogatives of which we are now so jealous of enforcing -- we had a much more fluid approach back then. Sounding the general theme, the Washington Union editorialized: “Let the great measure of annexation be accomplished, and with it the questions of boundary and claims. For who can arrest the torrent that will pour onward to the West? The road to California will be open to us. Who will stay the march of the western people?”
That same year, in 1845, John O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review wrote glowingly about, “Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Tejas itself wasn’t much -- who’d heard of oil wells, NASA and Halliburton then? -- though the South was glad to gain another slave state. But the vineyards of California -- the fabled wealth of Eldorado -- that was enough to add another rhetorical notch to the lexicon of empire, expropriation and expansion. Now “manifest destiny” could march proudly beside “freedom,” “democracy,” and the “Monroe Doctrine” (to be followed in turn by “free markets,” “pre-emptive war,” and all the panoply of grandeur and madness down to our own bombastic era).
But, I’m getting ahead of the torrent . . .
In every major battle of that two-year internecine struggle, Mexico deployed superior numbers -- sometimes, as at the Battle of Churubusco, vastly superior. The United States won thanks to firepower, training and money. The imperialist government of El Norte could command the prodigious resources of a nation of 23 million against the disorganized forces of Mexico’s 7 million. Mexico was, itself, divided: about 1 million criollos (pure-blood Spaniards) at the top of the heap, lording it over 2 million mestizos (mixed bloods), and 3-4 million indios at the bottom. Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor whose specious and noxious ideas about an inevitable “clash of civilizations” (which helped to establish the academic groundfloor for the US invasion of the Middle East in this new century), could have found his unworthy predecessors back then. Reverend Theodore Parker, a Unitarian preacher in Boston, sermonized that the Mexicans were “a wretched people; wretched in their origin, history and character” who must give way to “the steady advance of a superior race, with superior ideas and civilization.” Parker did not mention our “superior ideas” about slavery. (No wonder the Boston Unitarians -- now among our most liberal church-goers -- could not then abide, and would soon ostracize, a free-thinker like Emerson in their midst!) Parker’s racism was less rancid than Ohio’s Congressman Delano who dreaded Americans mingling with people who “embrace all shades of color . . . a sad compound of Spanish, English, Indian, and negro bloods … resulting . . . in the production of a slothful, ignorant race of beings.”
Thousands died on both sides from gunfire, cannon fire, disease. The US Navy bombarded Vera Cruz the way it would later bombard Lebanon. In September of 1847, General Winfield Scott marched into Mexico City. Mexicans fought on their home ground as bravely as the citizens of Fallujah would fight against the American invaders in 2004. At the Battle of Chapultepec, young military students threw themselves over a cliff rather than surrender. Today, young señoritas still lay flowers at the Monument to the Boy Heroes at the foot of Chapultepec Hill.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo acknowledged the foregone conclusion of the war. Mexico surrendered half of its territory (including Tejas). Ever wary of the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” the U.S. paid Mexico a trivial sum of $15 million, to foster the illusion that it had actually paid -- a la the Louisiana Purchase -- for what was now the US Southwest and California.
The results were tragic, not only for Mexico, but for the then increasingly dis-United States. Integrating the new territory exacerbated the conflicts between the rapidly industrializing North, with its privileged class of Railroad men and nascent robber barons, and the plantation aristocracy of the South. Quarrels over the expansion of slavery -- and which exploitative economic system should prevail! -- led to the Compromise of 1850, the fallacious principle of “popular sovereignty,” bloody Kansas, John Brown’s revolt, and the Civil War. US officers who were “trained” in the US-Mexican War included Grant and Taylor (both later Presidents), Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy) and Sherman, McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
In a very real sense it was the third Civil War on the North American continent -- the first had matched Tory loyalists against an alliance of New England rumrunners and mercantilists and Southern slave owners. (The Tories lost, of course, but their cause would soon be resurrected by Hamilton and others.)
The consequences for this hemisphere and the world were disastrous -- and we are still paying the price. A victorious, reinvigorated, self-refulgent “North” continued its expansion westward, intensified its holocaust against the tribal peoples, reasserted the hemispheric hegemony it had predicated in the Monroe Doctrine, and moved beyond California into Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and China. (A pugnacious high school teacher once informed me that the American Empire began with the Spanish-American War. It had, in fact, begun much earlier.)
The great Mexican writer Octavio Paz tried to penetrate the impenetrable in his classic study of his countrymen’s character, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Hundreds of years of conquest -- the brutality of New Spain -- had created a darkness in the soul, a redoubt for retreat, a secret place to preserve the old verities, often masked under the symbols of the invaders. The cult of death of the Aztecs retained in the amber of Christianity -- the sacrifice of the Son/Sun-God, renewing the desiccated fields with blood. Paz didn’t write about the way the Anglo-Saxon conquest and domination has affected the Mexican psyche. That book is being written now in our daily pages.
We move inexorably towards being one people -- the people of this hemisphere -- the children of Cain and Abel, conqueror and conquered. It is only in the past decade that Latinos have become the dominant minority in the U.S. It is only in the past few weeks that they have gently nudged this country to recognize their political and social power.
42 million Latinos means that 1/7 of the US population dances to a different, salsa beat. But that number belies the reality. Add the 12 million “illegals” and we have more than 1/6 of us looking more like Jennifer Lopez and Penelope Cruz than like Nicole Kidman or Laura Bush. Do we think that the “legal” children, born on US soil, of “illegal” parents, are going to sit idly in their classes, learning a lot of non sequiturs about US history while their parents, uncles and aunts are deported? With the average age of Latinos about 26, and the average age of non-Latino whites about 36, all the demographics strongly favor a very different United States within a couple of decades.
But this doesn’t tell half the story. Add the 38 million Blacks, the 10 million Asians already here, and we have a mighty nation within a nation -- one to set the teeth of Reverend Parker grinding, not to mention the wooden teeth of that great slaveholder George Washington. (Not so much a racist as other Founding Fathers, perhaps. He did provision to manumit his slaves following his own and Martha’s deaths. A provision which must have made for many nervous nights for the widow Martha, listening for footfalls at Mt. Vernon.)
It is something like opera buffo to watch white politicians decry the “invasion” of “illegals,” weeping their crocodile tears over the loss of minimum-wage (i.e., Black) jobs! How far these circus clowns travel to bemuse and divide us! Have they suddenly discovered the Black underclass hungry for jobs?
Two-thirds of the education programs approved under the Great Society agenda of Lyndon Johnson have been underfunded these past forty years. Blacks do not work in the vineyards of California because the bosses won’t hire them; those bosses prefer to deal with “wetbacks” (a now politically incorrect term) who cannot complain about being under-paid, and without health care and other salutary working conditions. There are, as well, other socio-economic factors rarely mentioned. Mexicans who cross our border, live in cramped quarters, save most of what they earn and send it back to their families. After a few years, they may have saved enough to build a small, $5,000/$15,000 house in Mexico. A Black man has no such inducement to travel from his ghetto/village. The meager sustenance-wages he could send back would barely support his family in the ghettoes of our cities. Further, suburban whites seem to feel much more comfortable having their yards tended by little brown folks than by under-employed Black men. Racism wears many faces.
It isn’t Mexicans who are taking Americans’ jobs. Our modern day robber barons have been outsourcing our best jobs for decades. They have instituted WTO and NAFTA treaties that ensure the free flow of capital, but not labor. In place of Lincoln’s land-grant colleges (instituted during the Civil War), educating and assimilating millions of Americans, we have Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” -- a magic numbers trick with an empty top hat and no dove emerging.
We have sent our jobs abroad, under-funded education, shipwrecked our infrastructures of healthcare and transportation, debased environmental and food industry standards, trivialized our mainstream media (MSM), sullied our popular culture, and the top 1 percent have amassed fortunes through tax savings and other crimes, creating a society with wage and asset differentials not seen since the French Revolution.
And for this we blame the Mexicans?
Fortunately, there are other trends. While our Supreme Court-appointed “leaders” have used racism and fear of the other to divide and conquer us, most Americans rather like the heterogeneous world we inhabit. 68% of Democrats support citizenship for illegal immigrants, as do 65% of Independents and 55% of Republicans. If an alliance of Capital, Government, the Religious Right and Right wing MSM divides us, an emerging alliance of Progressives and “minorities” is ready to seize the moment, to stop the cataclysm before it comes.
We need a new vision of what we’ve been and who we are now. We need to bring our troops back from the Middle East and around the world -- not to patrol our permeable borders, not to build new walls, but to build infrastructure for the 21st century and beyond. We need to move in the direction of a new nation -- The United States of The Americas, a nation that integrates itself into the rich and varied tapestry of this hemisphere. If we require new immigrants to learn English, let us also encourage our citizens comfortably ensconced here to learn a few new dance steps: let us promote bilingualism here.
Latino media flexed its muscle and millions marched in Los Angeles, Dallas, D.C., Phoenix, Atlanta, and around the country. They can do more. Spanish-language TV is mostly something I skip over. Though I am improving my Spanish and urge all gringos to do likewise, I would make greater progress if there were subtitles on some Spanish programs. Spanish-language lessons, directed at English speakers, would help integrate our disparate, but converging, worlds. I’d like to watch historical dramas set in Mexico with English subtitles. What a dynamic for growth in this powerful Latino medium!
And we gringos must also reach out. We must educate ourselves about the true history of this continent. We’ll need to reform school curricula, hire many more Spanish teachers. We might institute a National Day of Remembrance, May 13th, say, to commemorate all those souls lost to ambition, greed, fear and ignorance. And, it is not too early to re-examine some of our sacred tenets -- our Constitution that enshrines privilege and property; our electoral system that disenfranchises and undermines democracy and human rights.
Mexico is a “young” nation, the United States is becoming an old one. Cheap Mexican labor added fuel to the real estate boom of the past decade, helping our boomer generation achieve some measure of economic autonomy. Our aging population could actually benefit from much more cost-effective health care available in Mexico! Our labor unions, under serious assault since Reagan, will thrive with an injection of adrenaline from Mexico.
I don’t suppose this sort of integration will be easy. I do believe it will be easier and much more desirable than erecting a Berlin Wall/Israeli Wall between our peoples. We can pressure our elites to pass a kind of Marshall Plan for Mex-America, to build and rebuild infrastructure here and there. That is infinitely desirable to fighting a fourth Civil War!
There is a profound example of the kind of integration we can have. Seventeen years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, West Germany had to digest East Germany -- some 30 percent its size and population. Income differentials between the two Germanys were about the same as that between the US and Mexico today. For some years after unification, the German economy lagged behind its European rivals, Britain, France and Italy. Today, it has achieved parity again, and German autos and high-tech products are among the world’s most sought-after. The Germans invested in infrastructure, education, etc. Naysayers who doubted that a Communist-Warsaw Pact nation could be integrated into the socio-economic structures of an advanced Western democracy have been silenced.
We must prevent the ruling classes from sowing discord and division again. We must teach one another and study our mutual history -- and reframe that history where necessary. Our artists must reach across borders, translate and enlighten. Indeed, artists must play a central role, debunking old myths, employing the scalpels of words, music, forms and design to refashion the world. A daunting challenge -- or shall we simply continue to preside over a degenerating popular culture: watching non-celebrities cooking unpalatable food; vicariously wife swapping and bug-eating?
Capital must be restrained and redirected. It seeks out wage differentials of 1 to 50 (China/India vis-à-vis the U.S.) and shuns differentials of 1 to 7 (as between Mexico and the U.S.). Enough of cowboy capitalism, jingoism and frontier justice! Let Capitalism pay its back taxes. It is time to pay dividends on the “sweat equity” of slave and “wetback” labor.
Modern day robber barons promote patriotism as so much sentimental slop to persuade the hoi polloi to send their children abroad to fight our aggressive, pre-emptive wars. Meantime, they store their gold bullion abroad, live abroad, enjoy those cultures that invest in their own citizens’ education, healthcare, transportation and communication facilities.
Patriotism begins at home -- and our home is Turtle Island. Corporations which do not invest in our infrastructure, outsource our jobs, collude with governments -- ours and others -- to promote transnational trade agreements that circumvent the regulatory processes of democracies must feel the whip and lash of boycotts, even as they have whipped and lashed labor and the underclasses around the world. No more business as usual. There is nothing usual about the times in which we live. No more half billion-dollar bonuses for Exxon executives, sagging in their greasy excesses. It is time to put a cap on capital. In the United States of The Americas, let us establish ceilings for income and assets in the same way we must establish living wages, a ground floor. The Tower of Babel ultimately collapsed for want of a common language -- and for want of a ceiling! We are a community and a world out of balance. The tribal peoples walked gently on the earth. We can honor them by restoring the balance they revered.
If we are going to get through the next few parlous decades, to weather the destructive forces we have already unleashed, we will need new structures, new laws, new vision. And something else, something else that is vital. “People today,” declared Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, “only know how to live in society, not in community . . . The soul of society is the law; the soul of community is love.”
* Note: Quotes reflecting the tenor of the times (1845-1848) are redacted from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Gary Corseri’s articles, poems, fiction and dramas have appeared at CounterPunch, Common Dreams, Dissident Voice, the New York Times, Village Voice, City Lights Review, Redbook, PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He has taught in public schools, prisons and universities, published two novels and two collections of poems, worked as an editor, busboy, grape-picker in Australia, gas station attendant, etc. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Other Articles and Poems by Gary Corseri
* Too Many Mexican