By the Time I Get to Cucaracha
Issue #60, April 2002
I was watching NBC's Will and Grace. It's a show about a woman, Grace, who leaves her fiancé at the chapel on their wedding day and runs off to live with her gay best friend, Will. In this particular episode Karen, Grace's extremely obnoxious socialite assistant, was upset because her housekeeper, Rosario, was going to be deported. In order to keep her in the country they hatched up the old green card scam, and picked Will's gay friend, Jack, to be the groom. In one scene Karen and Rosario, who have one of those wacky love-hate relationships, are arguing and Karen says to Rosario, "If it wasn't for this you'd be flying back to Cucaracha on Air Guacamole with live chickens running up and down the aisle!"
I almost fell off the bed. I could not believe my ears.
The people involved in the creation of the show probably justify such blatantly unfunny and racist remarks by making the Karen character super-annoying, self-absorbed and materialistic, thus excusing her ignorance. Maybe they feel they have a little bit of leeway since they have (gasp!) gay characters in the show, and so, of course, they cannot possibly be racist or discriminatory. But, frankly, I think it's messed up that the maid "just happens" to be Latina because, hey, guess what, Latinas are capable of being more than some yuppie's housekeeper! And that said, we should be grateful to all the women, Latina or otherwise, who earn or have earned a living as housekeepers. My mom was a housekeeper when she first came to this country.
Most of the mainstream media seem to believe it's okay to portray Latinos like dirtballs. Not to mention the fact that Latino characters are usually depicted as being in this country illegally. There are plenty of people out there who already view Latinos as hailing from "Cucaracha" without having their beliefs reinforced by the almighty television. If you think we Latinos have made amazing progress and have many Latino actors on television and in movies that aren't portrayed negatively, how about watching the ALMA awards? It pains me to see the association grasping at straws to have a category in which there are more than two actors and to see how, in most cases, the nominees for awards are supporting actors. Characters not unlike Rosario.
But, when I see shows like Will and Grace, I wonder where the outrage is? Maybe the right people weren't watching that particular episode and so there was no uproar about it (unlike the whole Taco Bell Chihuahua controversy), but I think there's also something to be said about the fact that people tend to forget that groups other than African-Americans are discriminated against in this country and are often portrayed as racist stereotypes by the media. If the maid had been African-American and "Karen" had made a similarly insulting comment, all hell probably would have broken loose. However, NBC wouldn't have had the balls to even allow such a comment against a black character to air, because it is widely acknowledged that this country has treated black people terribly. And, perhaps more importantly, there are a lot of black activists and groups who would protest. Whatever the reason, it definitely seems to be more acceptable to make fun of certain groups than others.
What's more, pulling this tired and deceptive green card story line is ignorant and misleading. They assume (a) that it's easy to become a legal immigrant in such a manner and (b) that illegal immigrants are gaining residency left and right by marrying for green cards. I think it's fucked up that NBC can get away with letting something so insulting and demeaning to Latinos air, but, frankly, I'm not surprised. I'd seen that story line way too many times already in now-defunct shows like Jesse and Beverly Hills 90210. It's always portrayed as quick, easy, funny, and oh so romantic. Oh look at this wonderful American marrying this poor wetback just so she can stay in the country. How sweet. Yeah, well it isn't.
The rules governing the attainment of residency by non-citizens married to US citizens are not necessarily clear and not necessarily easy to follow. According to US law, marriages between a citizen and non-citizen must be entered into in "good faith." Then, just before a couple's two year anniversary, they must undergo an interview with an immigration officer, who attempts to make sure their union isn't a sham. The "investigation" includes weird, personal questions like: what side of the bed does your mate sleeps on? Or, what kind of underwear do they wear? During this two-year period the marriage cannot be annulled or terminated unless the spouse dies. And no, permanent resident status isn't automatically granted after two years. A petition has to be entered in order to terminate immigrant status. If it isn't filed then the person can be sent back to their country of origin, unless there's a really good reason for not having filed the petition.
An article in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, "The Gender Dimensions of U.S. Immigration Policy," argues that female immigrants tend to be at a disadvantage because their entrance into the country often depends more on family ties than other more "legitimate" reasons for entry. For example, employment-based immigration is dominated by men because it tends to favor people who already have advanced degrees in their field, are wealthy, or have much sought after scientific or technological skills. The number of "unskilled" workers who are allowed to enter the country has been lowered; therefore, immigrant women, who tend to come to work as housekeepers or child care providers, have a more difficult time having a "legitimate" reason to enter the United States.
Don't get me wrong though! The United States does love its immigrants. Of course, on the condition that they can do something for the economy. They don't want to hear about your poverty and persecution, but if you have money or special skills, well, that's a different story. Immigrants are allowed to enter the country legally if they make an outrageous monetary donation. Supermodels are also given special visas as entertainers and as possessors of specialized skills (being skinny and being able to pout on cue, I guess).
In 1986 the Immigration Marriage Fraud amendment was passed by Congress. This is the amendment that made the two-year minimum marriage period mandatory before a person could be considered for permanent resident status. The Yale Law article argues that this piece of legislation gives the spouse who is a citizen, most often the male, excessive power over the immigrant spouse because, believe it or not, after the two-year period is over, if the citizen spouse chooses not to sign the petition for resident status then the immigrant spouse and children, if there are any, can be removed from the United States. So for at least two years an immigrant woman can be at the mercy of whatever her spouse wishes.
You get a whole other story from the senators who spoke at the July 26, 1985 session of Congress for the Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy. According to Senator Alan K. Simpson (chairman of the subcommittee), "United States citizens legitimately petition for 'mail order brides' advertised in the backs of magazines and tabloids sold at the checkout lines of supermarkets. The alien admitted as a fiancé will go through the appearance of wanting to marry and build a future life until after the actual wedding ceremony. The alien then promptly abandons his or her spouse." Now, come on. It's okay for these men to order brides through the mail, but god forbid someone try to marry in order to stay in this country and hope for a better life? Does the idea of ORDERING a bride not seem even slightly disturbing to Senator Simpson?
Throughout his speech Alan Simpson made it seem like those who marry immigrants do so either because they "feel sorry" for them or because they are being coerced to do so. The "alien" (what's up with that label?) is portrayed as the scheming good-for-nothing, while the United States citizen is just a poor little lamb who is being manipulated. Simpson states that, "Because the alien and the arranger are well aware of the risks and penalties of disclosure ..., they feel no compunction in intimidating their United States citizen or resident alien spouses or fiancés." Simpson referred to immigrants who sought marriage for residency as "smooth-talking alien(s)" who made it a practice to convince the citizen that they were going into the marriage out of love and then once they obtained their resident status, they dumped the spouse.
It took Simpson awhile, but he eventually got his main concern off his chest when he argued that most of the illegal immigrants attempting to gain residency through marriage were doing so because they could not obtain residency otherwise. The reasons for their inability to obtain visas, according to Simpson, was because "most aliens" have broken the law in some manner — through illegal entry, or due to the fact that they are terrorists, criminals, narcotics users/dealers, or prostitutes. Note the words "MOST ALIENS."
In the early '80s, before the 1986 amendment was passed, the INS estimated that nearly 30% of the cases in which an immigrant had gained resident status through marriage were involved in "suspect marital relationships." When this estimate was revised, the figure was much closer to 8%.
Television and movies portray things as if there really are hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the United States getting hitched left and right in order to stay in the country, which is not true. The media makes it seem like a piece of cake to just up and marry and all of a sudden you're an American, which is also not true. Even sadder is that the media completely trivializes the reasons why people come to this country, or why some women might be so desperate not to return to their countries that they would be willing to marry someone they don't know and potentially endure abuse.
The media rarely, if ever, mentions that many of the Central and South American countries these people are fleeing have been historically terrorized by U.S. supported regimes. The media never bothers to mention that the United States quite often turns a blind eye to the terrorism, the disappearances, the tortures, the rapes, and other abuses being suffered by people who come to this country. Apparently, immigrants are most useful to the U.S. when they are performing backbreaking labor or being the brunt of jokes.
Celia C. Perez-Zeeb (email@example.com) is a reference librarian and freelance writer living in Chicago. She publishes the zines "I Dreamed I Was Assertive" and "Picaflor," and runs the Frida Love Diego Zine Mailorder.