When I was a boy growing up in Los Angeles circa 1970, I did something that brought dishonor to my people.
I tossed a hamburger wrapper onto the parking lot at a fast-food restaurant. This caused my mother to snap that I should never litter because “when people look at you and see black hair and brown eyes, they think you don’t have any manners.”
The word Latino had not yet entered the California lexicon. Hispanic or Hispano was used only by bureaucrats and academics. But my mother and I were not Mexican Americans, the only ethnic label most white Angelenos might have attached to us.
My parents were from Guatemala, a country that at that time had contributed few immigrants to the city. We were newcomers, and it was important to make a good first impression.
A generation or two later, with waves of immigration under our belts, we guatemaltecos, mexicanos, salvadorenos and other sons and daughters of Latin America are way past making first impressions.
Some people think we’re strutting around Southern California as if we own the place. They are intimidated by our great numbers, our seemingly exotic ways and the Romance language that often flows from our lips.Your humble columnist, with his surname and annoying tendency to quote people who speak Spanish, is seen by some as a symbol of this “foreign” presence. Never mind that I am, like millions of other Latinos, a proud citizen of the United States.
In the eyes of one Times reader, I am this paper’s “de facto Mexican columnist.”
I can almost feel the keyboards and smart phones vibrating rage as people compose the missives they send me, unburdening themselves of frustrations with Latino neighbors they assume to be undocumented immigrants.
Many of the messages are impassioned but reasoned pleas for restraints on immigration. Some are laced with stereotypes and insults.
“Why do you waste print on a dump like East L.A.?” one reader wrote after I penned a column about that community. “This is a crime infested Mexican [expletive]! ...These are illegal immigrants, you racist. They are an inferior subhuman race... How many murders did you animals have this week?”
When Dan from San Diego County wrote me to say that he believed I would be perfectly happy in “Third World California,” I wrote back and asked why he was angry.
He told me he had grown up in Long Beach but moved to a “decent area” in northern San Diego County, far away from what he called the “border town” culture of certain San Diego County cities. Still, he said, one day he looked out his window to see “two carloads of Mexicans” pull up in front of his house, change the diapers of their children and toss the diapers in the street.
“Is this the behavior of an educated cultured person?” Dan wrote. “This is Third World behavior of someone with no regard for the environment or pride in their surroundings.”
If there had been a Mexican mother near the diaper throwers, she might have said: “Mensos! Por eso no nos quieren!” (Loose translation: “Idiots! That’s why they don’t want us here!”) Instead, Dan chased down the litterbugs himself and made them pick up their trash. Then he hurled his anger at their entire ethnic group.
“If that makes me a racist, then so be it,” he wrote. “I’ll wear it proudly.”
It’s unfair, of course, to judge an entire people by the behavior of a few knuckleheads. Some would call it racist. I’m hopeful that only a small minority of Southern Californians think that way.
Still, I listen to Dan and hear nostalgia for the Southern California that was. He is a native Californian, like me, and he feels a sense of loss when he compares the timeworn and stressed-out region of the present with the more optimistic place of his youth.
In that California, the schools were among the nation’s best. The freeways and thoroughfares were empty of graffiti, there wasn’t much crime. Or at least, that’s the way we like to remember it.
Thinking about those days, I summon the words of one of my favorite writers, Denis Johnson, as he grappled with memories of 1970s America: “That world! These days it’s all been erased, and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere.”
Can we really blame immigration for destroying so much that was good in our city? What about the 1970s tax revolt and the money that disappeared from our schools and libraries? Was it open borders that doomed us? Or was it our long embrace of a culture of self-interest?
For some people, it’s a lot easier to gloss over the complexities of our recent history and just blame the guy next door named Pepe.
There is a vast American subculture out there swallowing all sorts of conspiracy theories involving shiftless Spanish-speaking immigrants seeking to drain our public coffers.
I even got an e-mail bemoaning immigration when I wrote about the beauty of our Southern California winters. After thanking me for reminding him of L.A.'s enchantments, one writer lamented how crowded the city has become and wrote, “Did you read how 1,400 illegals get kidney transplants/dialysis for free?”
Most of these writers share a vision of Latin America, and especially Mexico, as a place of poverty, peril and dysfunction. They worry that the region is exporting its sicknesses to the United States. A series of stories in this paper labeled “Mexico Under Siege” has stoked those concerns.
“Your country is imploding,” someone e-mailed me last week, “and your silence is deafening.” He was referring to Mexico, which is not my country -- though I’m happy to say I once lived there.
Earlier, I had promised the writer of that e-mail that I would one day address the root causes of illegal immigration. Fulfilling that promise was long overdue. So the other day I hopped on a train and headed south.
I crossed on foot into Mexico, that land next door that many Californians have come to fear. I’ll tell you what I found there in this space tomorrow.