After WWII, Senator Dennis Chavez (New Mexico) said, “When we march off to war, we are Americans; but upon our return, we are merely Mexicans.” These words are just as true now on this Veterans Day as they were then.
Regardless of national origin, Mexican-Chicanos have bled and died for the United States in the Battle of the Marne, Iwo Jima, Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sahn, Fallujah, and other countless battles that the United States has fought. Imagine the indignation of a returning Mexican-Chicano veteran or war hero who is reduced to a zero when asked for proof of legal status at work, for merely walking down the street, or for placing children in school. Ostensibly, these veterans served to fight for freedom and, by extension, liberty and democracy. Freedom is so important that society is willing to sacrifice people and economic resources for this vaunted and cherished ideal.
For Mexican-Chicano veterans, and the communities they represent, the oft-used cliché “they fought for the freedoms we enjoy,” is either not applicable or has limited meaning. Simply stated, freedom means rights and privileges, such as civil liberty or ease of movement. Yet, the current trend of anti-Mexican-Chicano legislation in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and other states is infringing on the rights and freedom of Mexican-Chicanos. Given the legal and extra-legal means that have historically been used to suppress this group, this type of legislation comes as no surprise—especially in times of economic downturn.
Although it is not wise to be a prisoner of history, it cannot be escaped. Racist vigilante/militias have a long history of “Mexican hunting” and unabated violent repression—often with government complicity. Recently, some elected government officials have openly encouraged violence. Kansas State Representative Virgil Peck was blatant when he said the killing of feral hogs from helicopters could also be used to remedy “…our illegal immigration problem.” Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama has called for doing, “…anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants. Herman Cain aspiring GOP presidential nominee claimed he was joking when he said that an electric fence should be build across the border. Texas Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, stated, “I see nothing funny about killing other human beings. Leave the comic routines to professional comedians.”
Historically, Mexican-Chicanos have consistently been considered alien or perpetual immigrants. The late professor Ralph Guzman surmised that one reason Mexican-Chicanos were over-represented in Viet Nam War casualties was because they wanted to prove they were Americans. Aside from having to provide proof of legal status to landlords, school officials, and employers, current legislation also gives police, not just federal officials, power to stop and to detain under suspicion of being undocumented. Unless a Mexican-Chicano has a passport or birth certificate on his or her person, it is not possible to determine legal status. Once away from his or her official duties or post, anyone who fits the profile of “foreign or Mexican,” regardless of social or class status, can be detained. This can include prominent individuals such as New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, retired General Ricardo Sanchez, or Chief Justice Sotomayor. Ironically, even Mexican-Chicanos or other Latino police or border patrol agents are suspect and can be detained when out-of-uniform or official vehicles.
Mexican-Chicanos are indigenous; but because of colonization and race mixture, they have varying physical characteristics, languages, styles of dress, and nationality. One of the more brilliant Arizona SB1070 law proponents claims that you can tell a Mexican-Chicano’s legal status by the shoes that are worn. Some Mexican-Chicano families have been in the US since it was Mexico, some are recent arrivals, and others are somewhere in the middle. Within a family, the nation of birth can also vary. For example, one parent may have been born in the United States and the other in Mexico. The same can be said of siblings and the extended family.
Language cannot be a means to determine an individual’s legal status because language variation is common. Some Mexican-Chicanos are monolingual Spanish or English, and others are bilingual. There are Mexican-Chicanos whose families have been in parts of the US for centuries and who don’t speak English. There are others who came as children from Mexico and don’t speak Spanish. Some recent migrants don’t speak Spanish but speak an indigenous language; they are skipping Spanish altogether and learning English.
For many Euro-Americans, it may seem that this type of legislation is quite harmless and necessary. However, one can just imagine the uproar if Euro-Americans were detained for “reasonable suspicion” on the East Coast because there is a sizable, illegal Irish population. Profiling this group could mean that persons such as Bill O’Reilly, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, or Soledad O’Brien (who would get a double whammy), could be detained if they could not prove their legal status.
Perhaps Abraham Lincoln expressed it best when he declared, “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.”
Charley Trujillo is a writer, filmmaker and Viet Nam War veteran who lives in San Jose, CA.