When The ICE Man Cometh: Don't Open the Door
by John Kendall Hawkins
"Every history is put out of date, almost daily, by the discovery of some scrap of paper or some clay tablet from under the ashes of Babylon,"
- Charles F. Lummis, Foreword, Sixty Years in Southern California (1916)
So true, Lummis's sentiment above, and nothing was more surprising in this new year than discovering Sixty Years in Southern California by Harris Newmark. Ending just before WWI begins, Newmark's contemporaneous reminiscences detail the early days, not just of Southern California, but the entire state, its early social and political concerns, and the rise of technology -- the steam wagon, the iron horse, the telegraph, the Gold Rush. Reading about early California, I was astonished to find that Russians, Chinese, and Pennsylvania Dutchmen had set up posts here at some point, that the northern (alta)/southern (baja) divide has been a longstanding problem, that its history includes massacres of Chinamen ("Coolies") and of indigenous tribes ("Injuns"), and that its settlers didn't know what to make of the Civil War, so they largely stayed out of it.
I turned over more "clay" factlets and discovered the name itself has some strange and twisted interest. In a cartographic flub for the ages, California was originally conceived of as an island, and that island was named after Spanish author Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo's 1500 tale, The Adventures of Esplandia'n, that described a realm of Black Islamic-supporting women (no men) ruled over by Queen Califia, a name thought to derive from Caliphate. I pictured a space-time continuum populated by Amazonian warrior women, all looking like Angela Davis -- in her prime -- preaching an ultra-feminist version of Elijah Muhammad's screeds. How did the blaxploitation era miss this one? Sweet Jesus, it sounded like a hemped-up episode from Calfornication.
But the main scrap of paper turned over was that California used to belong to the Mexicans. I guess I always knew that, in the back of my mind, being a California native, but I only just recently learned just how true that was. Apparently, it was very true. Damn. And after the Mexican-American war, we told 'em to load up and Stay Thirsty™ that way, meaning way South, after which, having kicked them out of Texas and California, we put up a barbed wire border fence and told Mey-hico they'd be paying for it, and only let 'em back in to pick lettuce, grapes, oranges, cantaloupes, and, now, marijuana, and producing Che T-shirts in Fresno sweatshops for agro wages (cotton). Mexicans have pretty much been seasonal undocumented desaparecidos in their own land ever since. Like a Che lookalike said.
Some wags believe the US military and political interventions in South and Central America, from the 1980s on, have driven the catastrophic migration problem we have today at the Mexican border. Robert Parry at Consortium News succinctly places the crisis in the context of the rise of the neocon project that began in 1980s under Reagan:
The poor Central Americans ... faced U.S. neocon ideologues who unleashed death squads and even genocide against peasants, students and workers. The result... was a flood of refugees, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, northward to the United States. The neocon "success" in the 1980s, crushing progressive social movements and reinforcing the oligarchic controls, left most countries of Central America in the grip of corrupt regimes and crime syndicates, periodically driving more waves of what Reagan called "feet people" through Mexico to the southern U.S. border.
Call it blowback. Or the chickens of our chicanery coming home to roost or roast -- all across L'America.
In The Undocumented Americans, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio follows the vectors of migration across the country, avoiding in this telling the more well-told story of California's Chicanos and the struggles of Cesar Chavez for economic justice in the 70s, and shows how, instead, the pressure of migration from the Central and the South has driven migrants up and Eastward, Ho! California's problems have come to the Right Coast, and places in between, and in this telling we get Villavicencio's firsthand accounts in New York City, Miami, New Haven, Flint, and Cleveland. These memoir-ies are meant to present microcosmic snapshots of the larger everyday confrontations undocumented migrants face in America as a whole.
Villavicencio's account is a fresh, vibrant and sassy account that uses engaging, informative and lively language. The undocumented, freelance writer from Ecuador describes her work as "creative non-fiction," renaming people and specific places (for obvious reasons), and choosing to eschew (gesundheit) the sad but hopeful tales of the more familiar DREAM ers to give the reader a taste of other untold tales. The Undocumented Americans was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2020.
Villavicencio writes that after having an anonymous account of her plight published in The Daily Beast when she was a senior at Harvard (one of the first undocumented migrants admitted there), which decried the fact "that I was leaving Harvard without any plans, without even the promise of a career," because of her immigration status. Shortly after Trump won the election in 2016, she said that she was contacted by a publisher to produce a book of her experiences:
"I was angry. A memoir? I was twenty-one," she writes in her introduction, and she adds, "I didn't want my first book to be a rueful tale about being a sickly Victorian orphan with tuberculosis who didn't have a Social Security number, which is what the agents all wanted."
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