Mexicans Come to Find Work, Not to Find an American Identity

<i> Richard Rodriguez is an editor for the Pacific News Service; his next book, "Mexico's Children" will be published by Viking</i>

Mexicans are seen to be different from other immigrants to this country. The cliche for this difference is proximity: Mexicans are too close to home to feel any necessity for change. Americans describe Mexican immigrants as unwilling to fit in.

Yes, Americans acknowledge that Mexicans have been discriminated against, but as much as Mexicans have been kept from America, Mexicans have inclined to keep to themselves in America. Mexicans don’t vote. Mexicans won’t speak English. Mexicans drift out of high school. Et cetera.

Yet Mexicans end up in line at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, filing to become U.S. citizens.

Three Mexican men in Tijuana tell me they are coming across to Los Estados Unidos only for work. A casual thing. A job. They do not sound like the immigrants of yore, the mythic immigrants at Ellis Island. Work will allow these men to send money home. They see a job in America as a way of sustaining life in Mexico.


Not all Mexicans came to the United States for reasons of poverty. At the beginning of this century, during the civil war that Mexico officially prefers to call its “revolution,” many Mexicans fled Mexico as critics, or fled violence and persecution. These people flattered America’s idea of itself as a political solution.

Lately, upper-class Mexicans have thrown their moneybags over the fence into La Jolla or Aspen or Houston. Like other Third-World rich in time of fiscal woe at home, they save themselves by saving their money. The United States understands them and takes them in.

But for most of this century most Mexicans, legal or illegal (the distinction has been entirely America’s), have come of necessity. There is no work at home. They come for jobs. They do not otherwise want America as they perceive America. They do not want American children.

Mexicans perceive America as a place of dangerous confusions, dangerous freedoms--a Miltonic Tijuana. Every village in Mexico can name sons and daughters who have not come back. Mexicans fear losing “Mexican values” to modernity. Mexicans know what is at risk in America but they don’t realize, before they come, how America will grab them. They nonetheless realize the risk by its proper name: a job.


Five hundred Mexicans wait on a blasted ridge in Tijuana to become invisible--this night it will happen at 8:34. They are not discussing Thomas Jefferson or the Bill of Rights. Someone has an uncle in Reno who knows of a job. Another knows a farmer near Tracy who always hires at this time of year.

Washington is beginning, just beginning, to interpret correctly the single-minded purpose for Mexicans entering the United States. The logic of recent immigration legislation implies as much: If you cut off jobs, Mexicans won’t come. But for a long time now America has lured Mexicans up to work, whether illegally or legally is not the point. To offer a job, any job, is already to have invited Mexico into the very center, the working center, of American culture. American culture is based on the job.

Late in the 19th Century, Americans reached into Mexico for cheap labor, to build America or to harvest America. There were American towns in the Southwest that engaged Mexican laborers rather than bring in American blacks. During wartime Mexicans were invited to replace American men who had gone off to fight. Mexicans were hired for work considered too dangerous or too hard or too demeaning for Americans to do. Get an outsider to do it.

When America had done with the Mexican, America expected the Mexican to disappear. America deported Mexicans during the Depression. After the bracero guest-worker program came to an end in the 1960s, America told Mexicans to go back home. The border is closed. There is no work for you here. Comprend-ee?

For Americans, laws are absolute. If Mexicans continue to come, they are breaking the law--too bad, but there it is. They have to go. But here is America’s confusion. There is no such thing as an “outsider job” in America, no job without the implication of inclusion. And there is no such thing as temporary inclusion--even if the job is finished, America has already begun.

Mexicans who cross illegally are disrespectful of American laws. And of Mexican laws. For there are two ways in Mexico. There is the realm of the public, the official, the listed price, the written law. But Mexicans are private people and laws cannot describe them. The listed price can be negotiated, the jail sentence can be commuted with a bribe. The failures of men have already been allowed for by a merciful God.

Because of historical double vision, the Mexican at once discerns hypocrisy in America. Immediately, there is the official face of the United States to bypass--the border patrolman with dark glasses. Just beyond is a needy private America, innocent until proven guilty: The woman in Brentwood needs someone to do “babycity.” The Korean laundry in Anaheim will take a risk, or 20 risks. The peaches are ripe in Tracy.

Mexicans are a sentimental people, fiercely patriotic. It hurts to leave Mexico, Mexicans say. Mexico, in this case, does not refer to the current government in Mexico City or any idea of commonweal. As an abstraction, Mexico barely exists for most Mexicans. Mexico is something close--a village, a house, a door, a bed, a face, an embrace that has endured through centuries.


Work for the Mexican may be crucial for survival but work is not the meaning of life. Work is the bitter curse of Original Sin--man’s punishment, man’s lot outside Eden. Work is something to be gotten through.

Boy, do those Mexicans work, Americans say, intending to praise. But watch the Mexican work and see his fury against work. Work is evil. Work is not something that elevates. Work proves the fallen state of human nature.

Mexicans work so hard not because they value labor the way a Puritan does. Mexicans work hard to finish, to shake the dust from their feet. In Mexico the meaning of life derives from leisure, which is not vacation or even respite. The culture of leisure depends upon a theological conviction that man is created for Eden and that eternal bliss--the privacy of time--is natural to him. Man does not build Eden. Eden is lost. But there are children and there are songs. . . .

In Protestant America, identity derives from doing. One is what one does. The job is not something merely to be gotten through. In America the job allows you, encourages you, to earn more than your father earned--that’s the point. (Americans have used work to overturn the authority of their fathers.) In America you are rewarded individually; you leave one job only to find another, better. Earn more and more money and you become a person of choices: the self-made man.

The American job introduces the Mexican to an optimism and a solitude nowhere described by Mexico’s theology. This is what the immigrant does not realize as he steals through the dark toward America, thinking only of his family.

In the Central Valley, where I grew up, Mexicans were notorious for pulling their kids out of school in November, packing up the car and heading back to Mexico--several families in a caravan--beer, song, rolls of toilet paper streaming from the rear windows. They were going home. They were free.

Not all those families were farm-worker families. Some men had cannery jobs. Some worked as mechanics or janitors or gardeners. But their jobs never described them. They were Mexicans.

They came back each spring, though. And many eventually stayed. After a few days or a few months or a few years in America--or a few hours--the Mexican discovers the meaning of the United States. The Mexican discovers that he is alone. Perhaps this is freedom.