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No Somos Criminales: A Decolonial Response to Nativist Racism in the US

For all those perceived as illegal, even if their ancestry predates by several generations the arrival of European immigrants, how do we read their harassment, deportation, assumption of illegality? Is this also a predictable outcome of the processes of nativism? Your racialized construction trumps claims to indigenous identity and ancestry?

by Arturo J. Aldama

While the power of the Europeans has continued, I see the other part of the Ghost Dance prophecy coming true today. So-called “Hispanics,” with faces that sure look like Indians to me, are returning to repopulate North America. We cannot always speak to each other because we have learned the languages of different colonial powers. But these Indians have as much right to come and go on our land as the geese when they migrate north and south. No one would dare to ask them for their passports and visas as they cross man made borders. Instead of seeing “Hispanics” as outsiders who do not belong here, we need to start seeing them as ancestors of the original inhabitants of these lands. They are the living fulfillment of the Ghost Dance prophecy.

-Chief Billy Redwing Tayac, Piscataway Nation, April 2010

In thinking about issues of power, land, culture, and the politics of indigeneity, Chicanas and Chicanos are defined by a heterogeneity of historical origins (Indian, African, and Spanish) that for most part include an ancestry to indigenous or first peoples communities, nations, and civilizations in what is now the Southwest (Apache, Pima, Pueblo, Navajo, Tohono O’dham, Ute, Kickapoo, Yoeme) and in different regions of México, Otomi, Purepecha, Nahua, Tztotil, etc. This piece looks at the resurgence of United States nativism on the US/México border and notes the historical origins of US nativist ideologies with Bill Poole and the ironically titled Native American party, which in the 1850s directed its vigilante activity at Irish Catholic immigrants and other non-WASP groups.

The issues that concern me most are the arrogance of power and the absolute sense of racial entitlement that drive paramilitary nativist and neo-Nazi vigilante groups along the border and throughout the US, which in a loose chronology include the Barnett Brothers, Ranch Rescue, the American Border Patrol, the Christian Identity Movement, the National Alliance, the Klan, and the Minute Men. In exploring the vigilante nativist claims to the cultural, political, and legal ownership (and their paramilitary enforcement) of lands that are indigenous to sovereign nations along the border and the land that belong(ed) to Mexican Indian families, I look at how their vigilantism is tied to the ideas of racial xenophobia and to fears of how they perceive the re-conquest of the Southwest by México and Mexican immigrants. In considering how well these paramilitary groups are financially and “morally” supported by the political mainstream and by general public sentiments, I argue that these groups attempt to capitalize on a national desire for safety and security and enact a pre-civil rights, pre-Chicano movement discourses of racial threat, social containment, and bio-power by the dominant culture, and attempt to re-map fears of 9/11 terrorism onto fears of immigrants of color in general and Mexicans in specific. 

Even more alarmingly, these ideas of racial/territorial entitlement spread into the American mainstream. In fact, they carry an enormous weight of transversal racial hostility throughout the political and public cultures of the US, as shown by SB 1070. Signed into law by a semi-literate, deeply under-educated, militant homophobe, anti-education, and now institutionally racist, Governor Jan Brewer, SB 1070 has had cascading effects in other states like Georgia, New Mexico, and now Alabama. Other alarming examples include Pat Bertroche, a GOP candidate for the Congressional primary in Urbandale, Iowa, who wants to microchip immigrants. He said, “[I] actually support microchipping them. I can microchip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I microchip an illegal?” John McCain's spurious allegations blaming the summer 2011 Arizona wildfires on Mexican illegal immigrants were without any factual evidence. Is it illegal for him to tell lies and to fan the flames of racial prejudice? Brown bodies are the new/old scapegoats for racial bio-power to blame for natural disasters, take advantage of people's anxieties about the economic downturn, and the huge demographic shifts currently occurring the US.

The United States has a history of acting with colonial/neo-colonial arrogance and fallen into nativist-driven cycles of racial violence towards the immigrant Other since the first large scale waves of immigration starting in the 1850s by the Know Nothing (or “Native American”) Party of Bill Poole (glamorized as “Bill the Butcher” in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). In an 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, Abraham Lincoln addresses his views and fears of the Native American Party, writing, “When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’”

Interestingly, the first full scale targets of American nativism vis-a-vis immigrant bashing were Irish Catholics escaping famine, violence, and legal dispossession, the consequences of colonial/neo-colonial usurpation by the British empire and its Protestant Irish colonial agents. As a type of xenophobic bio-power that echoes with the negative views of Latino immigrants today, we see the Irish constructed as racialized and disease-ridden Papists and rapists. David Roediger’s foundational study The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class captures the racialization process well: “Low-browed and savage, groveling and bestial, lazy, and wild, simian, and sensual-such were the adjectives used by native-born Americans to describe the Catholic Irish ‘race’.”

Interestingly, it is important to remember that the first nationwide anti-immigrant legislation in the United States was directed at Chinese workers with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This federal law legislated over 30 years of intensive racial antagonism towards Chinese workers and businessmen, who like Mexicans in California, have provided a backbone of labor beginning in the 1850 Gold Rush era. Then, during the 1930s with the onslaught of the 1929 Stock Market crash and wide spread unemployment, we see similar patterns of scapegoating--vigilante violence, and in the case of Mexicanos, and a mass deportation of approximately 700 thousand people, many US citizens.

From Out of The Shadows, by a noted Chicana historian Vicki L. Ruiz, characterizes the brutality of the scare tactics and climate of state and federal sponsored hostility in the 1930s as follows: “The methods of departure varied. A historian of Los Angeles, Douglas Monroy, recounts how la migra trolled the barrio in a "dog catcher’s wagon." In one instance, immigration agents tore a Los Angeles woman from her home in the early morning hours, threw her in the wagon, and left her toddler screaming on the front porch. Even if such scenes were few and far between, they certainly invoked fear among Mexicanos, many of whom decided to take the county up on its offer of free train fare.”

Interestingly, the image of screaming children left as their parents are caught in a “dog catchers wagon” does not just belong to the 1930s. One only needs to see the Dec 12, 2006, raids by ICE on the Swift meat packing plants in Greeley, Colorado, and other plants throughout the US. Seen by many pundits as political theater by former Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff to send a message that the federal government is cracking down on illegal immigrants. The arguably illegal acts of unlawful detainment and purposeful separation of parental custodians from their children by these ICE raids, racial profiling at the work site, and violation of Union representation rules sent shock waves as detainees' children--many who had US citizenship--were literally left to be cared by the local church, or if they were lucky, extended family. Yet these acts of state violence are celebrated by both by many members of the general public and elected politicians like Colorado Representative and Senator-elect Schulteis, who told the December 13, 2006 Rocky Mountain News, “I was delighted, quite frankly, to see that.” As a sad end note, lawsuits brought by Union representatives, family members, and even property rights litigation, have all been thrown out by district court judges, giving a type of eminent domain stature and impunity to “illegal acts” of the federal government around Immigration enforcement. See the American Immigration Law Foundation for more details.

The irony of the day, December 12, is not lost on many either. December 12 for Mexicans and Chicanas/os is a day of incredible historic importance in the Mexican culture. The Dia de Tonantzin-Virgen de Guadalupe is celebrated as a day of offerings, peace, hope, and solace to the Mother of God and to Mother-Earth. So in broad strokes we see the constant cycle of economic demand and anxiety about racial domination by non-WASP subjects: first Irish Catholics, then Chinese workers and businessmen, and then and now Mexican immigrants.

“Aztlán,” as famed Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya reminds us, is the “umbilical cord to the past.” Even though the origins and exact location of Aztlán are debated among scholars and archeologists, there is a popular culture consensus that Aztlán refers to what is now Southwest in general and in specific, the Four Corners area. Aztlán is the originary area of the Mexicas who migrated down to what is now Central México to form Tenochtítlan, or México City. My interest is to see how this term, like the term “reconquista,” which historically refers to the seven and a half century process by which the Iberian peninsula was re-conquered by Christendom, has migrated into the mainstream American culture (like other terms such as “MEChA” and “la raza”) most evident in the blogsphere/conservative radio talk shows, primetime news pundits, and as the rally point and fear of vigilante groups and anti-immigrant Nativists. These racist fears are a central platform for many Republican senators and congressmen, including J.D Hayworth, Tom Tancredo, David Vitter, Jeff Sessions, and de Mint--many Southern white men. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, now are tracking what many call the “Juan Crow laws,” rather than the Jim Crow laws. As Leo Chavez, a brilliant and cutting edge Latino border ethnographer posits in his The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, the Latino Threat Narrative posits that “Latinos are not like previous immigrant groups.... Rather, they are part of invading force from the south of the border that is bent on reconquering land...." and that this threat narrative targets Mexicans, other Latinos including Latinos who have been here before the US Mexico border was even created.

So as we see we men of European ancestry as an act of arrogance walk on stolen NDN land and claim they are defending the rights of Native(ist) Americans. So my question in the neo-colonial logic of Empire is, when does an invading force claim indigenous identity to the land colonized by one’s ancestors? Is it a general process? Or is this the logic of Empire to claim as yours to own, claim indigeneity by force, and “defend” the land taken by military force/genocide and ethnic cleansing? In addition, we can look at the specifics of Eurocentric/patriarchal power as a claim of indigeneity to disavow the continued struggles of first peoples nations and communities to maintain their sovereignity and reclaim their land rights and try to enforce the Treaty rights on what scholars and activists poetically (and empirically) call the Trail of Broken Treaties. So what do we as educators do?

In considering how the macro-sphere of racial politics intersect and magnify into the micros-spheres of university settings, how do we as College professors, deal the “racial” license that students feel that they have as they make hostile comments and jokes about immigrants, wetbacks, and how they are bothered by the illegality of Otherized subjects. Or even more so, how do we deal with the theatrics of college Republicans and nationally ranked fraternities and sororities as they do their anti-immigrant political theater, as seen in the following headlines: “College Republicans Host Anti-Immigrant game at NYU 2/23/07”; “College Republicans Continue Racist, Anti-Immigrant Activities in Idaho”; and “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” and “Fun with Guns” and at Penn State. They want to have a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” game as “Segue into Immigration Discussion” at University of Texas, a similar activity that caused a huge uproar.

My general response to this anti-immigrant climate is couched by the following questions. Are you an immigrant, or descendant of immigrant? Does being a descendant of European, especially Western, individuals allow claims to an indigeneity of American-ness? What laws do you and your ancestors break for stealing peoples land and for purposefully causing bio-terrorism and genocidal violence on first world peoples? What laws are Peabody Mining and coal and other predatory natural resource industries break as they continue to usurp resources from sovereign nations in Arizona and Oklahoma. What laws are broken when Mexican workers, who drive the internal and transnational economy of the US with exploited labor in construction, restaurants, service, cleaning. etc., are treated with criminalization, degradation, disgust, and invisibility? How do we “read” the schizophrenic edge of late capitalist racialized logics which play as follows: we need your labor/we need your taxes/and we need your purchasing power (about $1 trillion) and yet, you do not exist/you are criminal/you are sub-human?

Who listens to American Indian nations discuss their concerns about the historic invasion of European immigrants on their land? Who listens to American Indian nations on the border discuss being targeted by Nativist vigilante groups and by the Border patrol for being an “illegal alien” in their ancestral lands?

How do we tease out this cognitive map in the symbolic and political economy? Finally, for all those perceived as illegal even if their ancestry predates by several generations the arrival of European immigrants, how do we read their harassment, deportation, assumption of illegality? Is this also a predictable outcome of the processes of nativism—your racialized construction trumps claims to indigenous identity and ancestry?

To end this piece--maybe more of a rant--I will quote from an amazing collection of essays Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit by famed Laguna mestiza writer Leslie Marmon Silko. In specific, I refer to her testimonial essays, “Fences Against Freedom,” and “Border Patrol State.” Lamenting a loss of Freedom of travel between Arizona and New México to visit relatives via the southern highway, Silko states,

For miles before I approach the INS check stations, I can feel the anxiety pressing hard against my chest. But I feel anger, too, a deep abiding anger at the US government, and/ I know that I am not alone in my hatred of these racist immigration policies, which are broadcast everyday, teaching racism, demonizing all people of color, labeling indigenous people from México as “aliens”—creatures not quite human.

It is the US government that has continually attempted to sever contact between tribal people north of the border and those to the south. . . . The Uto-Aztecan languages are spoken as far north as Taos Pueblo near the Colorado border, all the way south to México City. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the indigenous communities throughout this region not only conducted commerce; the people shared cosmologies, and oral narratives about the Maize Mother, the Twin Brothers, and their Grandmother, Spider Woman, as well as Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent snake. The great human migration with the Americas cannot be stopped; human beings are natural forces of the earth, just as rivers and winds are natural forces.

Arturo J. Aldama serves as member of the Bad Subject editorial collective and as an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, Colorado University, Boulder.
Graphics: Arturo Aldama archives.

Copyright © Arturo J. Aldama. All rights reserved.