Can-do spirit fuels immigrants

GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

THROUGHOUT the 20th century, competing interests sought to portray Mexican immigrants in diametrically opposed ways. In 1911, a congressional panel known as the Dillingham Commission concluded that railroad companies such as Southern Pacific and Santa Fe preferred to hire Mexican workers because of their alleged “passive obedience” and reluctance to engage in “concerted action.”

In the 1970s, an emerging generation of activist Mexican American scholars sought to destroy the myth of Mexican docility by revising history. In their version, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans had always angrily resisted not only the clutches of their exploitative employers but of mainstream America as well.

Monday’s “Day Without Immigrants” march was impressive not only for its size but for the almost joyous, affirmative tone it conveyed. Tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters, marching west down Wilshire Boulevard -- holding American flags and demanding to be embraced by their host country -- may finally have wiped out those dueling, one-dimensional portrayals once and for all. For nearly two hours Monday afternoon, I walked east down Wilshire -- against the flow of the march -- so that I could better see the faces and slogans of the protesters.

The crowd was speckled with the usual suspects -- inarticulately politicized angry young men who would have been marching no matter the cause. But what made it extraordinary was the presence of so many “real people” who are normally too busy working and raising families to involve themselves in civic affairs. More than its overt political message, the march’s power came from its participants’ wholehearted belief that average people, even those without legal status in the U.S., have the power to effect change in the world.

Now activists and observers are speculating on how this energy can be harnessed and translated into broader political gains for immigrants and their children. But that is much too narrow a question. Despite what experts and news analysts suggest, “political gain” isn’t what’s most important for this generation of immigrants. Politics -- and political patronage -- were instrumental in the rise of the Irish, Italians and Jews. But they are conspicuously absent in the story of the ascent of three other successful immigrant groups -- the Germans, the Japanese and the Chinese.


This is not to say that it isn’t good news that over the last decade Latino immigrants have been inserting themselves more and more into U.S. politics. Their growing political voice has helped elect sympathetic candidates to office. But politics tends to induce people to look for answers outside of themselves. Clearly, government has the power to grant driver’s licenses to the undocumented or to create a guest-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, but that sort of thing (however crucial) cannot replace values and behaviors that in the long term are the real key to immigrant survival and mobility.

Over the last century, what has propelled Mexican Americans up the ladder are everyday strategies -- the sharing of family resources, the respect for work and the faith that God or the Virgin of Guadalupe will not abandon you in your darkest hour. You wouldn’t know it from reading much of the heavily politicized versions of Mexican American history, but these intimate values and skills are what give people the strength to move from abject poverty into the stable working and middle classes.

For Latino immigrants, the process of integration has always involved the adoption of American-style can-doism. A 2002 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found that a slight majority (52%) of foreign-born Latinos believed that “it doesn’t do any good to plan for the future because you don’t have control over it.” By contrast, only 25% of U.S.-born Latinos shared that sentiment. What the marches and demonstrations could do is speed up that learning curve.

Even if Congress responds affirmatively to the protests -- and I hope it does, in the form of new and better immigration policy -- the long-term success of this season of demonstrations should not be gauged by whether the fervor is transferred to the political arena, but whether immigrants themselves will inject more of their newfound confidence into their own lives.

That means the politicians, priests and activists who seek to harness this moment should think beyond voting power and gains in policy to strengthening immigrants’ intimate skills. One avenue would be to use the bully pulpit to broaden the value of “hard work” to include a greater emphasis on education.

After the congressional battle over reform of the immigration system is forgotten, immigrant families will still carry most of the burden of having to adapt to American society. Their advocates would do well to seize the moment to reinforce the notion that their fate lies, not in politics, but in themselves.