Last week a Department of Justice led by Attorney General Eric Holder mounted an attack so lame in front of the Supreme Court against Arizona’s anti-immigrant, anti-HispanicLatino law known as S.B.1070 that even first-time observers realized how thoroughly DOJ had been routed. Obama’s lawyers cratered in a case of existential importance to HispanicLatinos, who should be thankful that Obama’s lawyers later this year will not handle the challenge before the same Court to the minority-friendly college admissions policies of the University of Texas – meaning those of all of the nation’s colleges and universities.
HispanicLatinos should not be happy about last week’s unmitigated disaster if the Court affirms any part of 1070 in June. Any HispanicLatino citizens who think they are exempt from its ramifications have a surprise waiting for them. As surprised might be President Obama in November.
Most legal experts presume that last week’s faux attempt at lawyering by DOJ will cause the Court to endorse at least part of the Arizona law that targets individuals based on color, race, ethnicity and sound of speech on the mere supposition that they might be in the country illegally. My fear – and I so hope I am wrong – is that local governments will rush to propose and enact ordinances against defenseless local immigrant and HispanicLatino populations. Imagine the likes of hundreds of “Americans” like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona running wild in every state.
At times in journalism it is not the story but the context that matters. So it is with news reports this week about rapid declines in Mexican immigration that generated front-page news coverage throughout the nation. Mexicans coming northward form only one component of the changing demographics roiling the country — and it is important that HispanicLatinos do not think that the size of their population is going to diminsh in any way in the years ahead. Almost 50 years ago – long before the advent of the HispanicLatino population became newsworthy – the power of demography and the economy made a deep impression on me.
The winding down by Congress of the bracero program that allowed for Mexicans to work legally in the country and the nearly simultaneous closing of the local air force base economically devastated the town in West Texas where I grew up, reducing the county’s population from about 40,000 to 30,000. But at the same time the country already had written a prophetic passage in its history, and its authors were not Mexican immigrants, changes in the economy or laws passed by Congress but the so-called Anglo population. Sometime in 1972 or 1973, the Anglo population decided it was going to stop having more than two kids per family. Thus news gives way to context.
The Supreme Court hearing today on Arizona’s retrogressive 1070 law serves to remind us that every HispanicLatino is in the same boat. It is called America, and when states like Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Texas begin to subvert the very foundations of democratic governance, we have to hope the Court does not provide additional momentum to a state of affairs that might turn ugly. It has been a little more than a decade since the Court in 2000 greatly damaged the country’s faith in itself by overturning the results of an election that was never fully consummated, thus giving the country a historically disastrous Presidency from which the nation is still trying to recover. And it has been but two years since the Court further eroded the principles of every vote counting equally with its pernicious decision in Citizens United that unleashed the power of corporate greed that distorts the value of an individual vote.
These are not good days for the republic, and they are potentially worse for HispanicLatinos. Still, however the court rules on 1070, possibly in June, America will need as never before new leadership anchored by a new vision that must incorporate the convergence of HispanicLatinos from many places into one, unified population to focus on the immediate future. To help create the new leadership their country needs, HispanicLatinos must forge a new sense of common purpose that incorporates their individual experiences and places of origins to create a new identity – and lay down the foundation to oppose whatever laws stem from a faulty Court decision.
Followers of this blog know it focuses on the need to build a new intellectual framework for the development of a new HispanicLatino identity that is critical to the country’s future. A HispanicLatino community – fortified with a new sense of self – might be able to accelerate its current economic, social and political standing to help the country remain fiscally and demographically viable. How a new HispanicLatino identity forms that incorporates their new nation-saving mission depends on HispanicLatinos themselves. But in undertaking a reformulation of their personal selves that can lead to new self-development and self-determination, HispanicLatinos must be on guard to not fall prey to religions – especially hierarchical ones – that threaten the creative potential of the individual. Dogma wrecks self-expression and stunts personal growth. Corroding the status of the individual is but a small step from jeopardizing the democratic concepts of self-government.
The Vatican made the danger of institutionalized religion come alive startlingly last week when it landed on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization that represents the vast majority of Catholic nuns, who in the modern age have evolved – unlike the current set of bishops and so many priests.
It was as most funerals are: The grieving widow and family, the coffin holding the body of a public servant ready for burial and old friends re-connecting. As so many memorial services do, they bring together individuals who have not seen each other for years if not decades. Once reconnected, they speak as if it were only yesterday that their lives crossed paths: Old enemies forgetting what angered them over the years; old rivalries unremembered; stories retold of battles past; minds struggling with faces that they cannot attach to names.
And so it was earlier this week when his family and friends came to bid farewell to Carlos Truan, a long-serving member of the Texas Senate, after his heart failed. His funeral turned out to be more than a reconstruction of the past and more than about a life well-led that earned the respect of friend and some foes alike.
After all the huffing and puffing, the ongoing discussion about the Hispanic and/or Latino labels sort of misses the point. Yes, Hispanic is a confected term, and, yes, Latino, is not far behind but Latino is personally more acceptable to many of us who are Americans but cannot go around town calling ourselves Paraguayans, Colombians, Dominicans, Cubans or Mexicans first but who yet feel differently about our selves, meaning our identity. Thus the discussion – wholesome, necessary and inevitable – is not about a label but about identity, a term that is as much about who we are as it is about purpose in life.
Watching the race for the Republican presidential nomination come to an end when former senator Rick Santorum effectively pulled out of the race, I had two thoughts. The first: I would have loved to see how Catholics would have voted in fairly Catholic states like New York, Pennsylvania and California for, in effect, the GOP primary contest had turned out to be a referendum on the Catholic bishops and their attempts to inject themselves more in the affairs of state and, as important, the affairs of women.
After more than two centuries of existence, America continues to be a nation always in the act of becoming, and the new moment the country has entered allows HispanicLatinos to reintroduce themselves in a new light to the country – and to themselves. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, young Americans, feeling freed of conventions that were assumed to be breeding a national identity, went off in search of a self that somehow was unfulfilled.
That HispanicLatinos are unlike any other group in the history of the country is hard to dispute. No other group lives so close – and in many cases within – its original culture. Whether HispanicLatinos understand the potential power of their presence is not clear even though the old reality – that their root culture never disappears – is poised to gain traction in ways never envisioned by the nation’s founders.
In their Constitution, the founders asserted the right of individuals to freedom of personal expression and self-determination in the pursuit of their personal happiness. The success of HispanicLatinos developing a new, productive way forward – in a way thought of as possibly “un-American” by some – would be testament to the ingenious creators of the country. They understood that the personal freedoms enshrined and protected in their extraordinary document would allow its citizens always to work on America’s behalf and vouchsafe her future.
In the immediate years ahead, HispanicLatinos who are the most accomplished will have the most to lose if the rest of their community does not accelerate its progress and if America falters. These HispanicLatinos bear the looming responsibility of managing the interplay of three powerful forces already changing their personal lives and the larger trajectory of the country: A new demography, mass communications and a seemingly willful geography. It is a difficult but worthwhile task.
Geography often is taken as fixed. In fact, it moves history. Geography projects, maintains and grows culture, however unevenly. At times, an army can use the lay of the land to scurry a foe into defeat. But geography is far more powerful over the long term, shaping and influencing events permanently in positive and negative ways not apparent until much later.