Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 261 | Abril 2003



A Central American in the USA: Reflections on “The American Dream”

What does the “American dream” represent for the Central Americans who emigrate to the North? Only a nightmare? Today, when the United States has subjected the entire world to a waking nightmare by attacking Iraq, and Central Americans are dying on the battlefield too, it becomes even more necessary to reflect on the North from the South.

José Luis Rocha

Mark Twain traveled Nicaragua’s Río San Juan in 1886, when he was 51, 10 years after publishing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. All that remains of his ephemeral trip are the telegraphic notes from a diary titled he “From San Francisco to New York by way of San Juan and Grey Town Isthmus,” which never gelled into the planned book.
In these disconnected jottings, Twain tells of his admiration for the beautiful route; the fresh, drizzly climate; the coffee and hot tortillas; the carved jícaras; the procession of riders on their nags; the pretty native women with ruffle-trimmed skirts; the beautiful lake whipped up by the wind; the two volcanoes like circus tents; the vine-festooned trees that seemed like ancient ivy-covered fortress towers; the terrace of climbing plants that covered a hill like a veil; the dark grottos, enchanted bends, tunnels and ramparts in an infinite confusion of tangled vines; the caimans sleeping in the sun along the river bank; the parrots flying above the trees...

All this richness Twain described was already coveted by many of his countrymen. But today it is our own who, coveting the stability and quality of life of Mark Twain’s homeland and its opportunities for education and employment, are leaving Nicaragua, which never abounded with such qualities and is increasingly bereft even of the parrots, caimans, fresh atmosphere and garlanded trees.

What will the United States be like
when whites are no longer the majority?

Nicaraguans are part of the flood of Latin Americans into the United States. The number of US residents of Latin American origin has risen over 50% between 1990 and 2002, far above the 13% average growth of the total US population over the same period. It is said that Latinos are the most numerous minority in the United States and many predict that they will soon exceed all other minorities put together.

This and other related facts spark many questions. Will these Latinos totally assimilate, adopting Anglo-Saxon cultural patterns, or will the Latin culture increase its influence over time? What cultural impact do these immigrants have now and will they continue to have in their communities of origin? What impact will the remittances they send back have on their home communities? Will bilingual education become generalized in the United States? What will the United States be like when whites are no longer the majority? Will Latinos be able to win more political space and have an effect on immigration and naturalization laws? Will such influence translate into more openings for new migrants or will we see the reinforcing of the wall along the Río Grande? Will the first, firmly established, Latino migrants jealously guard migratory control or will ethnic solidarity blossom? Will interracial marriages among Anglo Saxons, Latinos, Asians and Afro-Americans increase? Will the currently low educational levels of Latinos improve?
Will Latinos break down residential segregation more easily? Will Latino women change the traditional macho aversion of Latino men to sharing household chores? Will the fact that immigrant Latino women earn as much as their husbands give them greater decision-making power in the home and help roll back the patriarchal system? Will Latino crime rates drop over time—as happened with the Irish and Italians once they were assimilated into the established population—or will Latinos, like the majority of Afro-Americans, remain with the lowest wages and scant participation in politics, living in marginalized neighborhoods and occupying a disproportionate number of prison cells?

New concepts: Transnationalism,
assimilation and “whitening”

Migrant studies have generated many new concepts, which despite having emerged from a particular discipline are now shared by all the social sciences. Transnationalism, whiteness and assimilation are perhaps the best known and most controversial, and are on the research agendas of thousands of academics.

Latinos living in the United States have become one of the subjects most covered by US university research centers and by the most disciplines, including demography, history, political science, sociology, anthropology and even several branches of law. And it is no accident that many of the research experts are descendents of Latinos searching for their own roots or looking to improve the conditions in which their ethnic group is developing. This is also the case in studies of Asians and other groups, and has fed the controversy about whether these academics are the most suitable people to be conducting such investigations. This resurgent debate is based on the distinction between outsiders and insiders introduced by sociologist Robert K. Merton three decades ago to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of researchers either belonging or not belonging to the group being studied.
Some see this growing interest in Latino migrant studies—new concepts, research centers, magnetic pull on various disciplines—as a simple effect of their numeric importance. For others, it exemplifies the opening up of US academia to the population’s multicultural reality. The most suspicious see the appearance of Latino studies as a specific field as yet another expression of colonialist epistemological distinctions.

According to social scientist Walter D. Mignolo, up until 1970 studies were divided by zones distributed according to East-West distinctions. From then on, however, the whole planet was taken as a field of study according to a new North-South axis. This substantial shift in the colonial epistemological difference had serious consequences for Hispanics/Latinos in academia and for Latino studies as an emerging field.
One of the consequences of the geopolitical compartmentalization of the world was the distribution of scientific work, so that, as Mignolo explains, sociology and economics concentrated on the First World. The Second World was mainly given over to the political sciences, while the Third World became primarily the domain of anthropology. Latin America was not only the Third World, but also a Spanish-speaking world at a time in which Spanish was no longer an academically hegemonic language. In accord with the tripartite division of the world by areas of study, Latin America was considered a territory that produced culture, but not science or academic culture. And thus Latino studies were reduced to just another object of the academic curiosity of certain sciences.

The numbers tell the story

Tons of paper and oceans of ink have been used writing about Mexicans. There are some 20 million people of Mexican origin living in the United States. In fact, Mexicans were already within what is now US territory before the country conquered it. We Central Americans, in contrast, are only just beginning to appear in the research agendas. And when we do, we show up most notably in research on political refugees and youth gangs, despite more interesting themes such as the retreat of male domination over Latino women in a country with less machismo, or the participation of Latino women in trade organizations.
The US census for 2000 recorded some 35 million people of Latin American origin (12.5% of the total population), of which nearly 1.69 million were from Central America (4.8% of the total Latinos in the United States). The Central Americans included 655,000 Salvadorans, 372,000 Guatemalans, 217,000 Hondurans and a little over 177,000 Nicaraguans. US Immigration Studies Center data from March 2002 indicates that in under two years the Central American population had grown nearly 28% to 2.16 million, which is 6.7% of all recorded US residents born abroad. Over a million of these Central Americans emigrated in the past 12 years, roughly since peace in Nicaragua heralded the end of the various wars in the region. Because this gush in the Central American migration stream is relatively recent, not all of its consequences are yet visible.

Of the approximately 31 million people living in the United States who were born abroad, 16 million (51.7%) are Latin Americans and over 10 million are Mexican or Central American, many of them illegal. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service data, some 70,000 Nicaraguans, 335,000 Salvadorans, 165,000 Guatemalans and 90,000 Hondurans were illegally residing in the United States in 1996 for a total of 660,000. They represented 13% of the 5 million people illegally in the United States in search of “the American dream.”

How they are seen and talked about

“I had a visa and came into the United States legally whenever I wanted,” one Salvadoran living in Boston told me. “I came to do business, because I have several trucks that I used for commerce in El Salvador. The situation started getting uglier and uglier, so on my last trip I decided to stay, leaving the trucks to my sons. I’m here illegally, speak no English and work in a mechanics garage. This is no kind of life. Is this the American dream? No! This is the American waking nightmare!” Nonetheless it is something he is prepared to endure to achieve the living standard he yearns for, and which is now only possible for him in the United States.
Many theories, expressions and clichés have emerged to classify immigrants. On the positive side, they are presented as daring pioneers (particularly the women), the best resource a country can lose, their nation’s most ambitious individuals, people who don’t settle for having been born on the wrong side of the line that divides passports into those that open doors and those that close borders. More poetically, they are described as people who, unable to change their country, decided to change countries.

But Latino migrants often get the worst rap: they are variously deprecated as people who hitched their wagon to a nation that others had already built and raised to the rank of empire, improvised beneficiaries of the welfare state, usurpers of jobs typically reserved for blacks and refused by Asians due to their discretion and work ethic, criminals disguised as political refugees, ugly protuberances on the face of America, the generators of crisis on the Mexican border... All these versions have been disseminated and turned into clichés by US publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, US News and World Report, American Heritage, Newsweek, Time, The New Republic and National Review. The media’s role in shaping the image of migrants was documented and analyzed by Leo. R. Chávez in Cubriendo la inmigración: Imágenes populares y la política de la nación. But Latinos continue heading north, unruffled by anything that is being, has been or might be said.

Purging our “original sin”
of anarchy and tyranny

Why do they go to the United States? Some think they go to purge their countries’ original sin, whose effects have left us eating dust in the race for development, a marathon to which we came untrained, were slow out of the blocks, tripped up a lot and wrangled with other runners while the United States snatched all the medals. What is the original sin in Latin America’s case? How does one explain our backwardness compared to US development?
Nobel laureate in economics Douglass North suggests that the political culture of the British colonies, based on participation and a low-profile government leadership role in economic affairs, favored the practice of political consensus while the excessive discretional economic attributes of the authorities in the Spanish colonies must have acted as an incentive for competition and dissension. According to North, the historic legacy of a more settled democracy in the United States than in Latin America led to a political culture of consensus that stimulated investment and business, allowing a US leadership based on democratic systems in which all citizens began to enjoy the same rights after the Civil War. Meanwhile, Latin America lagged behind, burdened by the creation of authoritarian regimes and political systems characterized by disorder and instability and fundamentally scarred by a lack of credibility. According to North, there are three types of political systems: order with a democratic system, order with an authoritarian system, and disorder. The Latin American countries vacillate between disorder and authoritarianism: between “anarchy” and “tyranny,” to use the more expressive nomenclature of Nicaragua’s José Coronel Urtecho.

The US “original sin”
is imperialist expansion

The problem with this approach is that it presents broad-brush histories of North and Latin America, describing them as isolated, unconnected processes, like two creatures that inhabit separate airtight compartments. Without trying to evade our responsibility, the thesis about displacement of the East-West axis by the North-South one and the emergence of the US hegemonic determination, whose most representative expression is the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, must also be included to explain our position and our development level with respect to the United States. Sooner rather than later, the United States stopped talking so much about liberty and equality and put more emphasis on imperial expansion.

In less than a century, somewhere between the war of independence (1776) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823), and later in the Spanish-American War to annex Cuba and the Philippines (1898), US political philosophy took a Copernican turn. Barely a decade before the civil war that abolished slavery, the United States had already swallowed over half of Mexico.
Lincoln may have struggled heroically to free the slaves, but he was followed by voracious Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, devotee of the virtues of the powerful races, proclaimed that in nine out of ten cases the only good Indian was a dead Indian and he wasn’t so sure about the tenth one. Afterward came President McKinley, who claimed that God had commanded him to take the Philippine Islands. It was around that time—13 years after his trip up the Río San Juan—that Mark Twain suggested changing the US flag by making the bars black and replacing each of the stars with a skull and crossbones.

Other voices in the United States had already spoken out against this unbounded expansionism. In his Civil Disobedience, writer Henry David Thoreau, viewed as a ne’er do well by his American contemporaries but venerated today, particularly by environmentalists, denounced the war that resulted in the annexation of California and Texas: “We are witnesses to this Mexican war, the work of comparatively few individuals who are using the incumbent government as a personal instrument, because at the outset the people cannot have consented to this measure. When oppression and theft are organized, when an entire country is unjustly trampled and conquered by a foreign army and subjected to martial law, I do not believe it premature for honest men to rebel and make revolution. What makes this duty more imperious is the fact that the country that has been trampled is not our own and that ours is the invading army.”*

The harvest of empire: Massive emigration

The United States quickly figured out how to turn both the tyranny and the anarchy of the Latin American states to its own benefit, making pacts with whichever caudillo came to power or pitting one elite group against another to reap easy fortunes from the chaos of fratricidal Latin American wars. Some US contribution could always be found behind the prolongation, exacerbation and even perpetuation of Latin America’s “natural” propensity to political disorder or authoritarianism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not doubt for a minute that Somoza was a son of a bitch, but as he explained to his Cabinet, “he’s our son of a bitch.”
Military imperialism paved the way for commercial imperialism. Our authoritarian institutions unquestionably played a distinguished role in Latin America’s underdevelopment, but the gringos who came as filibusters, traders, heads of big business, politicians or Marines reaped sizeable benefits. Now that our emigrants are fleeing the authoritarianism of the South and colonizing the North, the powers that be in the United States don’t recognize it as an historical boomerang.

This is the thesis of Puerto Rican-US journalist Juan González in Harvest of Empire: the Latin American immigrants being received with such ill will in the United States are an inevitable effect of the empire’s political investment in Latin America. In fact, González sees the flow of Latin American migrants as directly connected to the growth of the US empire and responding to its needs—be it the political need to stabilize neighboring countries or the need to accept their refugees (Cubans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans)—as a way to buttress the broader economic objective of satisfying the demand for productive labor supplied only in part by Puerto Ricans and Mexicans.

A legendary halo
and a hero’s bearing

US geophagy determined the ports of entry for Latin American immigrants: California, Texas, New York and Florida house 60% of all Latinos who have settled in the United States. Florida was annexed to the United States in 1820, a fate that befell California and Texas 35 years later. As Juan González observed, Latin America, a region the United States once considered its back yard, playground and place to make quick fortunes, has now crashed the garden, kitchen and living room of the world’s most powerful nation.

Latino migrants can now be found everywhere. Central Americans have preferred the big cities: Miami, New York and Los Angeles. But they have also come here to traditional Boston, with its colonial architecture and its pride in having the first of everything: the first port, first university, first high school, first museum, first philharmonic orchestra, first ripples of the independence struggle and even Pope John Paul II’s first Mass on US territory.

Meeting with a group of Central American immigrants in Boston, I was effusively told about their relatives’ fascination when they return; the men are viewed as incredibly prosperous and the women as remarkably beautiful. This impression reaches beyond the money and gifts they bring back with them and the remittances most of them send home faithfully every month.
A myth has grown up around migrants in Central America; a halo encircles them, conferring upon them a certain legendary mien and hero’s bearing, all of which springs from the far-off lands to which they owe their fortune. “We don’t know why they get so excited about everything to do with us. They touch our hair and say it’s softer now. They even say our skin glows. We don’t know where such admiration comes from. Even the smell on our clothes; I don’t know where it comes from, but here you aren’t aware of it and there it invades the whole house.”
Both the men and the women are very skeptical about what they have accomplished. Their relatives are unaware of the price of being a legend: the bills that have to be paid; the hours of intense work, never at a tropical pace; the cost of living; the never surmounted double day for women; the burden of being a third-rate citizen in the supposed land of opportunity; and the strategies one has to employ, like bringing over more family members to share the burden of maintaining those who stay at home and are sometimes entirely dependent on the remittances sent back to them. None of the migrants I spoke with laud their current situation. The United States turned out to be far from the imagined Shangri-La where the streets are paved with gold.

“We are a pushy multitude
propelled by the delirium of greed”

What would these immigrants think of US writer Henry Miller’s views on the contrasts he encountered on his trip to Europe, documented in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare? Miller’s port of entry upon his return was precisely Boston: “...an immense, useless structure created by pre-human or sub-human monsters propelled by the delirium of greed... From the topographical point of view the country is magnificent and terrifying. Why terrifying? Because in no other part of the world is the divorce between man and nature so total. In no other part of the world have I found such a monotonous and inert life substance as here, in North America. Boredom reaches its pinnacle here. It is our custom to consider ourselves an emancipated people; we say we’re democratic, that we love liberty, that we’re free of prejudice and hatred... In reality we are a pushy and greedy multitude whose passions are easily inflamed by demagogues, journalists, religious stooges, agitators and others of that ilk.

Gringophobes and gringophiles there have been, and will continue to be by the millions. But the Latino, for the moment, cannot afford the luxury of being so opposed to the system for reasons of elementary survival and even mental health. They are in no position to engage in battles against the bastions of the system. Color imposes silence, color knows it must adapt. Central Americans have yet to distinguish themselves in US literature or in the media, although in a few years they will doubtless begin to express their particular views about the country that received them.

Differences of opinion about the
“wonders” of the United States

There are thousands of conspicuous viewpoints about the United States. Citizens, temporary migrants, those aspiring to residency and visitors alike have offered their opinions. One of the most delightful came from playwright Oscar Wilde, in his comedy A Woman of No Importance:
Lord Illingworth:- They say, Lady Hunstanton, that when good Americans die they go to Paris.-
Lady Hunstanton:- Indeed? And when bad Americans die, where do they go to?-
Lord Illingworth:- Oh, they go to America.-
It would be hard to find viewpoints more bursting with accolades than those described in America, by Jacques Maritain, in which the French philosopher never tires of enthusing about the inexhaustible US virtues, barely sullied by even insignificant vices. Received in the United States to escape the Nazi horror, even Maritain was careful to mention, however, that express laws existed in the United States during that period ordering that shelter be given to those who were persecuted only if they were notable citizens, distinguished men of science, members of the European elite. This is verified, as a kind of mea culpa, in the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington, where one can also find Bertolt Brecht’s self-reproach for having survived thanks to his fame, while many of his friends ended up in Nazi concentration camps. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who spent the war in a concentration camp, charged that many Jews could have been saved if the United States, fearful of receiving an avalanche of migrants, had not refused to take them in when Hitler was willing to trade them for ransoms offered by their Jewish-American relatives.

The best here are the worst there

It should come as no surprise that the United States wants the best. Any country would, and an Empire with much more reason. Do we offer that? The statistics of our national censuses demonstrate that Central America’s emigrants have higher than average schooling levels. Data from the most recent living standard survey by Nicaragua’s National Institute of Statistics and Censuses shows that barely 6.7% of rural Nicaraguans over 25 years old have attended either secondary school or university, while 36.2% of Nicaraguan emigrants who left from that same rural sector had reached those education levels. Once they get to the United States, however, they join the ranks of the least educated immigrants, with schooling levels well below the native labor force.

According to the US census for 2000, barely 5.5% of Central American immigrants over the age of 25 have a university degree, a figure significantly below the 25.6% corresponding to all US-born residents of that age and an astounding contrast with Asian and European immigrants (45% and 33%, respectively). With 34% of Central American immigrants 25 years old or over not even having completed ninth grade, a category shared by only 12.7% of the Europeans, 10% of the Asians and 4.7% of all native-born residents, they are the least-educated regional group residing in the United States.

These statistics were confirmed by a Nicaraguan household survey indicating that 35% of urban and 57% of rural Nicaraguans over the age of 25 who emigrated had not made it to high school, while overall (migrant and non-migrant) figures for both geographic segments are 60% and 90%, respectively. This serves to further decrease the limited education level among Nicaraguans who stay at home.

These are the two sad faces of the migratory process: our countries are losing their best prepared citizens, who then join the lowest-skilled segment of the US labor force. The best from here are the worst over there.

The “1.5 Generation”
knocks itself out

Given all this, what might Central American immigrants dare hope for? Will their situation improve over time or will the only improvement be that they progress from being the most uneducated migrant group to being the least educated settled group?
Segregation has had a strong impact on educational performance, but the art of opening doors appears less related to being assimilated than to the migrants’ efforts to hang on to that adventurous spirit, the mystique of the outsider who has to earn respect in an adverse setting through talent and hard work. A correlation has been found between being a migrant and academic success among those who belong to what is increasingly termed the “1.5 generation”; migrants’ children who were born outside of the United States but raised in it. The fraction is to contrast them with the second generation—also children of migrants but born and raised in the United State—whose academic performance is notably inferior.

The hypothesis is that the former know they need to go the extra mile if they are to adapt and carve out a place for themselves, and they also have more knowledge of the difficult circumstances they left behind. The second generation is probably finding that the system does not reward their efforts as much as expected, that the promised land isn’t opening the same doors to them that it does to others and that they must always fight with a handicap. They see that TV offers what their pocketbook denies, so they take what they can get: a good time, baggy “cholo” pants, electronic appliances and the like, and they often join gangs.

Central Americans:
Neither black nor white

Segregation is a drag on even the best pioneering spirit. Everybody knows there are more African-Americans in jail than at university, and that while the “bad ones” are locked up, the “good ones” are on football or basketball teams. Spatial segregation has been permanently on US research agendas ever since the 19th century. First it was the Irish, then the Italians, and now it is the Latinos; African Americans have always been there. US writer Susan Sontag observed that when people of color or poor people move into middle-class neighborhoods, it is referred to as an “invasion,” a metaphor used to describe cancer or military action.

African-Americans are seen as welfare parasites, and very soon, too soon, Latinos began to share these disparaging stereotypes about US blacks. Perhaps trading in stereotypes is about assimilating, about making a pact with the socially plausible. Those who justifiably say that comparisons are always hateful and often unfair forget to say that they are also hard to avoid and help forge group and individual identity. We Central Americans are neither white nor black. Who are we closest to in our middle-ground pigmentary identity? Will we ally with those who are well established or with the minority, those who have always been marginalized? Some media are anticipating a new struggle, this time between black and brown.

Comparative advantage
is in the color of one’s skin

The problem always boils down to skin tone. This may be one of the reasons Salvadorans have conquered more space in US society than other Central American immigrants. According to March 2002 data from the Immigration Studies Center, the 869,000 Salvadorans are the sixth largest immigrant group in the United States, barely edged out by the Cubans, who have always enjoyed numerous advantages under the US laws that protect political exiles.
Without underplaying the importance of war and demographic growth in pushing Salvadorans out of their country, or of their traditional industriousness, which definitely opens doors for them, the fact that they are the whitest among the Central American immigrants puts them in a more favorable position for assimilation. It must also be recognized that the Salvadoran government has fought more than any other Central American government for the rights of its emigrants; infinitely more than the Nicaraguan government, which only talks to the North to lavish praise or beg for handouts. And on top of all that, the Salvadorans also have a comparative skin advantage. While 26% of Dominicans and 24% of Mexicans live in poverty in the United States, only 12% of the Salvadorans find themselves in the same situation, despite being at a disadvantage in many areas. For example, they have 30% less access to social welfare programs than the Dominicans, who are from an earlier migratory wave. Similarly, only 56% of Salvadorans receive public health care services, just edging out the Guatemalans (54%). The recognition they enjoy, then, is “non-official.”
Historians studying immigration to the United States have begun to recognize that race has played a critical role in facilitating the adaptation of European immigrants and continues to do so. The study of whiteness, a field born in the nineties, has revealed that the integration into established US society of European immigrants and their descendants is partly determined by their positioning as whites, as opposed to blacks. The Irish claim to their status as Americans was based precisely on being the opposite of black. Asian immigrants struggled for acceptance at a distinct disadvantage at the end of the 19th century.
That period, recently dusted off by historians, shows how the racial status of being white became one of the attributes needed to obtain US citizenship. Recent historical research has emphasized that racial barriers such as the 1882 law excluding Chinese triggered a new migratory filter: one based on nationalities of origin.

A new crime:
Possession of the wrong face

The pre-existing suspicion of non-white immigrants skyrocketed after the attacks on the Pentagon and New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, that horrendous event that people in the United States now call simply “9-11.” In its aftermath, airport security checks reached paranoid extremes in the United States, and there was no way to avoid our Central American airports chiming in with a servile tropical echo. The Salvadoran government, for example, used the occasion to do away with the bothersome airport union and saturate all passenger security check posts with military personnel.

In the eight flights I took during my stay in the United States I was subjected to the special security check twice; 25% of the flights, which I learned was just about average. On each flight the security agents physically check 25% of the passengers, which means that they do a detailed search of 20 passengers and their carry-on for an 80-passenger plane, ipso facto clogging up all the country’s airports. The object of suspicion was my face, which leads me to believe that someone with Arab features would face a higher average of checks. Naturally, to dispel any suspicions of discrimination, they always check a white person alongside a non-white one.

Susan Sontag observes that AIDS has increasingly affected the urban poor, particularly Blacks and Hispanics. After the events of September 11 and the serial killings by the famous Washington sniper—who as luck would have it turned out to be not one but two Jamaicans—terrorism has turned into a “sickness” affecting Latinos and Muslims. People in the United States tend to quickly forget, if they ever knew about, the massive introduction of AIDS into Honduras by US soldiers and its propagation in the brothels that sprang up around the banana plantations of the two transnational giants: Standard and United Fruit Company. They also forget the genocide in Hiroshima and the many psychopaths as blond as butter who have gunned down their fellow citizens in the United States to adjust their maladjusted personalities.

A celebration of whiteness

Many things are forgotten in this history, thanks to selective memory about what happened at home and abroad. Central Americans who want to establish themselves in the United States have to come to terms with these gaps. People in the United States have many resources for recalling and teaching the history they want to remember using few instruments and employing great creativity. “Reenactments” and museums are two fabulous forms.

The idea of reenactments is to reproduce in order not to forget the hard conditions of the nation’s beginnings. I participated in one of those reenactments, a kind of historical representation in which the descendents of Scottish immigrants dressed up like their ancestors of over two centuries ago, while the descendents of English, French or Canadians did the same. The reenactment in which I took part—dressed as a Scotsman—was at Fort Ouiatenon, in the town of Lafayette, some 60 miles north of Indianapolis. It commemorated the building of the fort, as well as the successive battles, the armies that alternated possession of it and its final annihilation, all during the 18th century.

To the delight of around a hundred thousand spectators, there were three days of parades, military marches, canoe races and the firing of cannons and muskets in an atmosphere of camaraderie that united three thousand actors, many of them children. Old dances were performed and old songs from various countries were sung. The singers were often old, and were so authentically outfitted and so imbued with their role that they gave the impression that they had just stepped out of the past. All were obliged to observe very precise rules, a dynamic similar to what must have been established in the United States to better govern so many cultures, migrant streams and nationalities. They were only allowed to prepare the food the old-fashioned way and serve it in rustic metal plates at roughhewn wood tables. Any object of nylon, plastic, tin or with any taint of modernity was prohibited.

But the perspective of the losers was completely missing, particularly those great losers, the real native Americans. Not those referred to by the current government census—whites who came and settled centuries ago—but the indigenous population. In this reenactment of history, in which each group of actors represented its ancestors, the indigenous population of that time was represented by white people with heavy bronze make-up. They were the only ethnic group not represented by their own descendents. I asked my hostess—a very perspicacious woman who loves US history and is proud of her Scottish roots—why there were no indigenous actors. She immediately responded: “Because they would feel offended if they were invited to an act like this.” But of course; an act like this celebrates and creates a sense of nation around “whiteness.”

A race against time:
Who will we be in 100 years?

Will we Central Americans be participating in similar reenactments in these lands in 100 years? Or will we be represented by blonds with makeup to imitate our natural tan? Will we have our own acts of commemoration or will we forget history? There are tendencies in both directions. There are Latino foundations and associations that work to keep Latino identity alive. The wall murals in San Francisco are one of the most outstanding efforts, in which Nicaragua and El Salvador are very much present. But at times, I think they are commendable initiatives running against the tide. One day, over a plate of exquisite, and of course very spicy, New Orleans cuisine, the Central American family that had invited myself and a friend to lunch asked me to explain some details of Nicaragua’s history for the edification of their adolescent children, born and raised in the United States.

At one point, when I mentioned Taft, Philander Knox and Commodore Vanderbilt, among other undesirable US personalities of pernicious influence on the avatars of Nicaragua’s history, one of the daughters exclaimed, “Look, mom, he knows so much about our politicians and business leaders.” She had very rapidly taken on US history as her own reality. Are these the traps of assimilation? It’s a sign that a very active and creative economic and political relationship between the migrants and those they left behind in Central America is in a race against time.

The destructive aim of US foreign policy

While I was in Boston toward the end of last year, a pureblood Bostonian friend took me to see the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. There, among many other wonders, we found El Greco’s unparalleled portrait of Friar Hortensio Félix Paravicino, painted in 1609. Surrounded by mummies and tombs that US archeologists had removed from Egypt out of love of science, I thought of what a great advantage it was for people in the United States to have such an array of masterpieces ranging from antiquity to modernity for their own cultural expansion and spiritual solace thanks to deals cut with unwary Eastern governments.

The gigantic statues of Egyptian divinities sculpted in imperishable granite enraptured us. Even more fabulous is a royal pectoral dating from 1630 BC that contains miniscule incrustations of multicolor stones and crystals in a gold and silver setting in the form of an eagle. No less admirable is the Procession of the Offerers, finely carved in wood over four thousand years ago for the eleventh Egyptian dynasty. When we passed the section on Mesopotamian culture, overflowing with relics that are also over four thousand years old, including sandals and chairs of wood and goat horn, my friend observed, “And to think that this is the civilization that we, a country barely 225 years old, are prepared to destroy.”
Days later, in the house of a US Army officer in Jackson, Mississippi, I went cold when I heard our host refer to Egypt, where he had served, as “that piece of crap.” The destructive aim of US foreign policy is simply terrifying. It is a mixture of ignorance and the desire to dominate. Not long before his death, US scientist and science popularizer Carl Sagan lamented the $264 billion that goes to his country’s army compared to the $17 billion earmarked for its entire package of civilian scientific and space programs. Sagan questioned why such an immense sum of money, if the Soviet Union has already been defeated, noting that Russia’s annual military budget is around $30 billion, China’s is similar and the combined military budgets of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba total some $27 million. US military expenditure, which is over three times that of all these countries combined, represents 40% of world military spending. Today, all these figures have been further altered by the “preventive wars” George W. Bush is promoting.

Past imperfect, present simplified
and future impossible

All the technology to show history in an interactive form and all the money to buy relics and finance costly excavations is worth virtually nothing if unaccompanied by serious interpretations that allow the lessons of ancient history to be applied to current history. What use is the whole fabulous Museum of the Holocaust to those who justify, applaud or actively participate in new holocausts? What good is the Museum of American History, which glorifies the US war of independence, to those who do not want to understand the new anti-colonial struggles or the rights of immigrants?
The cow quickly forgets it was once a calf, just as many in the United States forget an imperfect past that reduced and virtually annihilated the native population and embrace a present of Manichean simplification with racist overtones and an impossible future of white dominion exercised by a multicultural nation that does not know what it has within. The Central Americans are navigating that sea and trying to defend their rights. Perhaps they should try to hit the appropriate keys that activate the sometimes rich historic sensibility of many US citizens.

Political reflection before
the tombs of Sacco and Vanzetti

While still in Boston, I met with a group of Latin Americans in the spacious parish dining hall of a Latino neighborhood. It was very near the cemetery, burial place of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, Italian immigrant unionists executed on August 22, 1927 for robbery and murders they did not commit. There were Central Americans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and we talked about many things, but what stood out in nearly all was their pride in belonging to a powerful union. A janitors’ strike had just shaken Boston, making the front page of local newspapers as well as getting prominent coverage on the TV news. None of these immigrants had belonged to grassroots movements, political parties or unions in their countries of origin, so had no previous experience in such disputes. “Back home you couldn’t do it because they would immediately send the army out,” they told me. Sacco and Vanzetti committed the double sin of being immigrants and early union agitators. Many changes had to occur in the United States for unions to achieve the power they later acquired and a political culture free of such repression.
John Steinbeck’s novel, In Dubious Battle, tells of a strike by Mexican migrants in the California apple orchards, demonstrating the bosses’ intransigence and political manipulation. Now Central America’s immigrants can demand higher wages without being flogged, jailed or executed. And they can demand wage increases based not on Central American standards but on those of US citizens. That relatively favorable institutional context has allowed them to appropriate the technology of political participation, particularly the art of lobbying. They are learning what instruments to use, what doors to knock on and how to impact public opinion. Will we witness the transfer of technology in that area toward Latin America? Among the cultural remittances Central America receives, will we assimilate the ability to negotiate? Can some new organizational gene be introduced into our political DNA? Some protein that revitalizes political participation, seeking new forms that suppress or leave behind centralist caudillismo, political polarization and the resulting apathy?

Migrants go from South to North,
and maquilas from North to South

We are a long way from cloning these experiences, partly because the migrants don’t know how far they need to travel to build that institutionality where the force of arguments replaces the billy club and not only money speaks. Although undocumented migrants end up dealing with very adverse circumstances and face an obstacle course in defending their rights, a long stretch of the institutional route has already been leveled in the United States: the very stretch we are just setting out on in Central America.

Another problem is that Central America’s migrants will have to succeed in their own struggle before exporting organizational skills. The problems of falling wages due to the excess labor force and of the migration of US assembly plants to the lands and labor markets of the third world are yet to be resolved. Nearly half of all white people in the United States earn $35,000 or more per year, compared to only 23% of Latinos. The average annual salary of Central Americans with a full-time job does not quite hit $18,000.

While the poor rush off to the United States in search of better wages, factories are stampeding to Latin America in search of cheap workers. The first race is illegal, moves through the desert, across the Río Grande and runs smack up against the immigration barriers. The second has the approval of the Central American governments, is part of their development strategy and can move at the dizzying electronic speed of a bank transfer. It is big capital’s counterattack, and will be a permanent threat. Although many Central American immigrants (23%) work in the service sector, more (28%) work as laborers—many of them in the very plants that are migrating—and thus face the threat of unemployment and falling wages.
It is therefore unreasonable to expect all the struggles to be waged in the United States and that on top of sending remittances the migrants will also take responsibility for significantly affecting policies in their countries of origin. Although they are making and can make many contributions, their hands are still tied by a great many cords, among them their desire to assimilate successfully, their economic limitations and their obligations to the boss.

The palate is the last thing to go

Mexican painter and sculptor Francisco Toledo waged a furious battle to keep McDonald’s from setting up one of its franchises in Oaxaca’s main plaza. A fight without quarter between tamales and hamburgers, Mexico’s cultural heritage against the emblematic company of fast food and bad culinary taste. Toledo won the battle, but not the war. It is being played out in the United States, where tens of thousands of Latinos, mainly Central Americans, work in McDonald’s franchises. Need has the face of a heretic and twists the arm of those promoting their own culture.

But it only twists it during the migrants’ schizophrenic workday. At home, as if hidden away in the catacombs, Central American migrants prepare their nacatamales, hunger for tortillas, thirst for chicha. Craving their own food, they would sell their soul for baho, pupusas and gallopinto. They celebrate Purísima (the Immaculate Conception) and any patron saint festival they can remember. They want what is traditionally theirs. How long will it continue to be “theirs”? The palate seems to be the last thing to go. The identity roots of food run inexplicably deep, but many other things will be left along the road.
For its part, McDonald’s, like the mortally ill but stubbornly surviving capitalist system itself, has an unlimited capacity to adapt. As Spanish writer Vicente Verdú noted in a recent article, “They always serve the Big Mac, but they also offer Niçoise salad in France, Feta cheese in Greece, fried chicken in Singapore, curried chicken in the United Kingdom, and kosher food in Israel. Or in Norway they transcorporatize their unit of worship into a McLaks, based on salmon instead of beef. Or into a Maharaja Mac in India that uses lamb instead of beef, to respect the Hindus.” Could it be that the nostalgia industry will soon be offering the migrants McTamales? For those who stay behind in Central America, McDonald’s shows its cultural respect only by adapting its salaries accordingly, paying $4 a day rather than the $8 an hour it offers in the United States. It gets the same double advantage that the Nicaraguan upper class gets with its domestic employees, paying third world wages out of first world profits.

Which will run deepest,
ethnic or class alliance?

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States, and was impressed by the country that made everybody equal, enriching the poor and impoverishing the rich. Nearly a century and a half before the appearance of the New Institutional Economy and well before Douglass North attributed the progress of the United States to its democracy and egalitarianism, de Tocqueville underscored the importance of institutions in the development of society. Today other viewpoints abound regarding the egalitarianism preached by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These newer studies of US society have very suggestive titles: Created Unequal, American Apartheid, The New Slavery...
Mergers churn out multimillionaires and professionals wave their PhDs to earn a place at the apex of the middle class and be able to frolic in the meritocracy. Latinos who participate in this festivity now humiliate semi-skilled Anglo-Saxons. Will there be an ethnic alliance or a class alliance? What carries the greatest weight: color, ethnic origin or class position? The Central Americans who go to the United States haven’t all arrived in the same conditions. Although the majority of Nicaraguans who left during the eighties entered the United States with refugee status, the first to arrive were members of the Somocista elite, led by Hope Portocarrero de Somoza, wife of the “last Somoza.” While they settled in Miami’s most luxurious area, the middle-class professionals who followed moved into neighborhoods corresponding to their position. Only in the final years of the revolution, when the crisis became very acute, did the huge wave of poor migrants appear and move into Little Havana, increasingly turning it into Little Managua.

Out of pure political affinity, the Cubans in exile supported the early Nicaraguan arrivals and shared their connections with the Republicans. The two groups felt bonded by a common episode in both of their histories: their flight from “communist regimes.” The Cubans organized banquets with influential senators and pushed through massive naturalizations for their Nicaraguan allies. But the middle-class Nicaraguans had a peculiar way of helping their own undocumented and poorer compatriots. They offered them jobs as domestics and in other services at $100 a month, which while close to what a legislator made in Nicaragua during those Sandinista years was ridiculous by US standards. Class interests won out over ethnic solidarity without a fight.

Everything remains to be seen

Many interests are at stake among Central American immigrants today that are causing variances in the identity mechanisms, including class, gender, race, ethnic identity, political affiliation and religious creed. The future of solidarity is being played out among these interests, which may or may not include mediations for ethnic solidarity and subsequent support for political, social and economic projects in the nations of origin. Just as easily, they could be chips in the “every man for himself” game. The role of the media, churches, unions and associations will be vital in defining which tendency prevails. It all remains to be seen.

*retranslated from Spanish by envío

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