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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Morons and their Ideas

If the following had happened 35 years ago, I would've received the best private school education an immigrant farm-worker's salary could afford! Brilliant!
GOP bill aims to retool immigrant birthright citizenship

Stephen Wall

Republican lawmakers in Congress are sponsoring a bill that seeks to abolish birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents.
Federal law automatically grants citizenship to any person born on American soil, regardless of the immigration status of the child's parents.

Supporters of the bill say that many people come to this country for the express purpose of having children who are American citizens, making the family eligible for welfare and other government benefits.

"You have many people coming to this country illegally," said Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, a co-sponsor of the legislation. "They come to this country and have babies. The children are citizens. The children are eligible to go to school. They receive food stamps and social programs. The American taxpayers are paying for it."

The bill does not seek to change the Constitution, which grants birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment ratified in 1868.

Instead, it would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to clarify the interpretation of the 14th Amendment.

The measure would limit birthright citizenship to children born to at least one parent who is either a citizen, lawful permanent resident or actively serving in the U.S. military. The legislation would only apply prospectively and would not affect the citizenship status of people born before the bill's enactment.

If the bill passes, people on both sides of the issue say it is likely to be challenged on constitutional grounds. "This bill is unconstitutional," said Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino. "It would change one of the most basic principles that our nation was founded on: If you were born in the United States, you're an American."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Second-Hand History

My grandfather was 9 years old when the Mexican Revolution broke out. He lived in Acuitzeramo, Michoacan, somewhere in the middle of the state, currently 3 hours by car and but back then a few days by horse from Mexico City. His uncle, a guy I'll call "I.S.", joined the “bandidos,” or revolutionaries, and befriended Zapata’s general in the state, another guy named Inez Garcia. Once a month for years, Garcia would march his soldiers through town and would demand to be fed by the locals. My grandfather’s job was to gather all the unmarried girls and take them to the hills that surround the town. They would hide there until Garcia left—for obvious reasons. I.S. wasn’t liked very much by the towns-folk. In fact, those that remain still despise him. The towns-folk didn’t care for the revolution. My grandfather died in 1992 at the age of 91. He didn’t tell me the story—I was too young to care before we left and in the process of learning verbs and English conjugations when he died. My father told me the story after I named my son “I.S.” having no idea about the infamy of this name.


I was a “migrant student” until the 10th grade. This meant that I got a free lunch at the school cafeteria and all the Spanish classes I could handle. I developed some guts sometime in the 5th grade and I protested: I wanted to take “regular” classes! With the gueras! I was tired, I told my ESL teacher then, of learning about “apples” and “green” and “run”—I was bored. She said I wasn’t ready. “Ready for what,” I asked. “For English,” she said. I asked when I would be ready. She said: “Well…there’s a lot to learn” and held up a 8 x 11 card with a picture of a guy in a red sweater acting out a verb…I think he was running. I told my mom about it when I got home and she assured me that my teacher knew what she was doing.

My mother was very trusting about other people’s best intentions for us back then. She had confidence that no one meant us harm. Or perhaps she just didn’t want to make noise. Maybe she thought that as long as she kept quiet, no one would notice us. We hid like this for years. In fact, both her and my father got used to hiding, to keeping quiet, and to the silence that comes with that. I guess it's one of those things you do when you come to believe that you're trespassing on someone else's land--or rather, when you're forced to believe it. It took me a while before I got the courage to vote.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Great Resolution

The headline to the statement below was something about the Obama administration’s fragile hold on the Latino electorate and how it all depends on promises made regarding immigration reform. It was a paragraph, but I schematized it some. I lettered and numbered it so as to really absorb its genius. It reads:

(A) White House spokesman Adam Abrams said the president wanted to sign a bill that strengthened border enforcement and
(B) cracked down on employers "who exploit undocumented workers to undercut American workers."
(C) He also said the president wanted to resolve the status of 12 million people who were in the U.S. illegally,
a. "that they should have to register,
b. pay a penalty for breaking the law
c. and meet other obligations of legal immigrants such as
i. paying taxes,
ii. or leave the country."


Without getting all poli’ical n’ stuff, I’d like to point out how asinine this statement is.

A is ridiculously empty. Of course, the job of a president should be to sign bills that strengthen border enforcement. One of the essential requirements of Nationhood is that it has borders and that they are protected. So every President since Washington been signing bills that “strengthened border enforcement”—this is nothing new.

B just says: “don’t hire illegals or you’ll get it…you’ll get it good.” Again, every president since I’ve been alive has made this threat. The interesting thing about this quote is that it adds that the “undercut American workers” bit. So here we have an interesting logical situation: if the exploited undocumented worker does not undercut American workers, then ...what? Most “illegal immigrants” never undercut American workers. I have never seen an “American worker” cut lettuce for a living—work that requires one to bend over for 12 hours a day 7 days a week without the possibility of a chiropractor…in the mud and without being allowed to spit or pee or talk or shit for fear that wiping will contaminate the hands and in turn the lettuce…. So B is idiotic.

C: Once, while driving past Little Rock, Arkansas, I saw a billboard that caught my attention. It said: “God wants the 11 million illegal aliens out of our country.” I guess God doesn’t always get what God wants, since the number is now 12 mill—this was in 2004. The Great Resolution, or C, will take a variety of forms, each with its own moral twists: a: they’ll register, and wear an I for illegal; b: they’ll register, wear the I, and pay for it; and c: they’ll register, wear the I, pay for it, and (i) pay taxes or (ii) leave the country. Which means, of course, that if they pay taxes, they can stay…or not.

The Great Resolution is, again, nothing new. Most illegal aliens already pay taxes in the hope that they’ll be able to apply for residency one day, at which time they’ll be asked: have you paid your taxes? At which point they can say confidently: well, yes, I have all these 1040’s stretching back 24 years. And, as per certain implied agreements, they’ll be allowed to stay...or not...usually not.

This all means one thing: Obama can easily keep his campaign promise by doing exactly what has been done before. The Illegals, of course, will keep on paying taxes and if they’re "asked" to leave, will leave and turn right around.*

*at the risk of saying way too much about my political sensibilities, I voted for Obama and will continue to support him and his administration. But this policy, or its representation in the media, just sounds illogical...and that's upsetting.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Crossing II

My parents were in the hotel room with us when I woke up. My mother was asleep in one of the beds, with a red bandana on her head. My father lay next to her—they were both covered in dust and strands of yellow grass. My sister was in my mothers arms. I don't remember were she came from. Anyways, I was happy they weren’t dead.

We were rounded up at about noon and packed into a truck headed for Anaheim. No one said a word. I remember the silence and the fear. After a while, my mom started a conversation with another lady about the weather. I think it was hot in the back, so the conversation was natural. Then the woman said that they had almost gotten caught the night before, but, that as luck would have it, the migra’s truck had overheated and they were able to run for it till they found a hiding place. My mom told her that they had crawled through a tunnel to get across; that she was on her knees for about 4 hours; that the smell of dead bodies had made her throw up; that the dead body was a woman’s. She told me that story many years later, and I recalled the trip to Anaheim when she did.

My father slept next to me with his hat half-covering his face, as he does. It had the word “KING” sewed on it in the shape of a crown (now it sounds like I’m making this image up to reference some sort of unconscious projection on my part, but everyone I knew had a hat that said KING on it. I learned later it was an agriculture supply store in King City, CA. where my father, and everyone he knew, bought their work boots…and their hats). The truck stopped a couple of hours later--or was it days? My father paid the driver and we got to Anaheim. We went into a McDonalds with our bags and my father bought us food. It was the first time I had seen them eat in two days. I fell in love with McDonalds that day. It was the greatest, best smelling, and most delicious place on earth. We had arrived.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Question

Someone asked me the other day: “Why is it difficult for Latinos to understand philosophy?” The question itself is quite innocuous, as it merely meant to ask why it was that there were so few Latinos who either studied or taught philosophy (as I do)? So I think that by “understand” the person meant “be interested in.” But, as innocuous as it is, it demands an answer, so this is what I said:

It is not a matter of understanding, but of exposure. The idea of "philosophy" does not jive with other ideas familiar to Latinos; it does not "fit" into the Latino picture of the world in any easy way. There are different associations Latinos make when they think of filosofos—and they’re not always positive. However, Latinos are, in fact, extremely philosophical; just listen to our music, attend to our views on death, birth or family, read our literature. I think my father is one of the most philosophical persons I know--he has a conception of human experience similar to the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume. My father is a skeptic, but a philosophical one who recognizes the limits of his skepticism and, in turn, the limits of human reason. But no one would ever refer to him as a philosopher, except, perhaps, to mock him. This referral, I think, would require an exposure to philosophy and to the Western idea of the philosophical life that only higher education can provide; this exposure, furthermore, would require the Latino community to encourage their youth to pursue philosophy as a discipline, which will never happen so long as the purpose of going to college is to get a job and make money.

I'm not saying that Latinos need to study philosophy. The situation is the same with any other discipline. The idea here is that from the beginning my world-view has been limited to my experience, which in turn has been limited by the experience of those around me, but most importantly, by the experience of those I love and respect. My parents could never have encouraged me to pursue the humanities in college, not from any fault (or wisdom) of their own, but because, for one, the concept of the humanities didn’t appear on their radar—it wasn’t part of the conceptual scheme which determined their experience. This is one of the reasons why I claim to be a “second generation immigrant”: my life up to now has been a series of trespasses and relocations, a continuation of the first generation’s journey, but without the violence and death.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Philosophy II

When we returned to California in 1984, my father took a job on a ranch just north of San Luis Obispo. Four of us lived in an old trailer parked beneath some oak trees. It was a decrepit place (I’ll get to that later). Sometime toward the end of 1984, the Rancher—his name was David, a Texan—informed my father that he would be unable to pay him for some time, as the Ranch was in financial trouble. Toward the end of 1985, David the Texan had yet to pay my father for an entire year’s worth of labor. He told my father to keep a diary of his “hours” so that, once the Ranch turned a profit, he could claim his pay. By the end of the year, my father demanded his pay, since, for one, we were starving to death. David the Texan told my father that he would have to wait a while for his money (“till hell freezes over”), and that if he (my father) complained, he would have him arrested and deported. Marx turned in his grave.

Those diaries forged themselves into my memory—I can see the yellowish paper, my father’s clean, refined, almost aristocratic handwriting, the way he wrote the number 9 and the word Sunday. I remember David’s mustache and his detestable 5 foot frame, his broken Spanish and his yellow teeth. Oh, memories!

This brings me back to Agamben’s homo sacer. The “sacred man,” he says, is one who cannot be sacrificed but whose murder is not a homicide. In other words, while homo sacer cannot be thrown into the volcano as a gift to the gods, killing him for any other reason is not a crime. The “illegality” of immigrants (and the consequences of this) comes to mind: we cannot round-up (logistically, at least) every illegal immigrant and place him/her in chains (which would be akin to sacrificing them for the sake of Sovereignty) but we can pick them out individually and rip them to shreds (symbolically, at least) without fear of reprisal. Sure, I might be taking too many liberties with this concept. But the thought of David the Texan, who could not sacrifice my father in any way, instead stripping him of his labor and dignity without fear of retribution by State or man, makes my possible misapplication feel right.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Speaking of my mother

At age 16, my mother was kidnapped by the man who would become my father in a brazen night-time abduction involving a horse, a gun, and a funeral.

The man had met the woman a few days before while she walked home from church. He’d stopped his car besides her and asked for her name. Giving the man her name was an invitation—the man asked if he could visit her at her home and talk. She reluctantly said yes. The next day the man showed up to her home and asked her father if he could speak to her. The father said yes, so long as he stayed outside and she stayed inside with the gate to the outside half open. They spoke for a couple of hours. She recalls his face: she didn’t like his face, it was reddish around the cheeks and white around the forehead. She didn’t like where he was from and she hoped he would get tired of standing outside and leave. On the second day, he asked her to be his girlfriend, to which she said no. This, of course, and they both knew it, meant that he would try to “take” her—as it was common in those days in the early 1970s (yes, you heard right, the late 20th century!). On the third day, her mother died. The funeral lasted a few days, prayers and arrangements had to be made. On the last day of the wake, she saw him circling about in a black horse. On the day of the burial, while she walked home with her sisters, a car pulled up with 3 or 4 men—all strangers—and told her to get in the car. Her sisters knew what was happening, so they waited for it to end. Two of the men dragged her into the car and took her to my future father’s house, whose family waited for her arrival with food and music.*

A few days after the incident, and after my mother’s father was notified (a moment in the event known as “las pazes”—or the peace), my future mother and my future father were married in a small civil ceremony by a municipal judge. In the presence of that judge he made her one promise: he would take her to el Norte as soon as he could.

*(That this practice was customary does not take away from the terror of that event, which haunted us both for years.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ombligo II

The “post” in “post immigrant” refers to that complicity of which I spoke about before. It could also refer to the presence of a shared trauma—how could I not share in the trauma of separation, of longing, of criminality, of exclusion, when even if I am “legally” exempt from it, it constitutes me? I’m sure Freud or Lacan have something to say about this. I’ll look into it (or not).

Going back to my father’s buried belly button. This is that part of the umbilical cord that remains attached to the newborn after the "unplugging"; it dries after a while and falls off. My mother saved mine, too. But, since they were constantly on the move, she never buried it. I saw it about 15 years ago. It was in a blue, pleather suitcase, wrapped in a white towel. It looked like a slice of dried nectarine. I’m sure it’s been lost by now, eaten by ants, or perhaps it’s wandering the planet looking for me. If I were to find it, what would I do with it? I could bury it in the back yard of my house, which is not technically my house, but belongs, rather, to capital, which belongs…blah blah blah. I would probably carry it with me everywhere I went—in my wallet, next to a poem I’ve been carrying around for 13 years. It’s by Robert Hayden, and the first stanza speaks volumes:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fire blaze. No one ever thanked him.

That “No one ever thanked him” is the reason I carry it around like I do—among many things, I am guilty of that, too.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


My father was laid off this past year after the guy who ran the company which paid him (the plantation owner) embezzled $40 million dollars! This is the first time in my father’s entire life that he has been without work. The work that he does is not enviable: it is dirty, muddy, sweaty, wet, all-day, deadly, back-breaking work which pays just enough to sustain him so that he can keep his heart pumping long enough to die just before he’s supposed to collect his pension. He’s a farm-worker, like many immigrants, past and present. But, it’s work. And now he’s without it. He walks up and down the house all day infuriating my mother—he’s like a caged animal. So, this past summer, he decided to go back to Michoacan for the first time since 1984.

Of course, nothing is like he left it. His parents are dead. His siblings are dead. The house in which he grew up is in ruins, swallowed up by vegetation like an ancient temple. He spent a month just walking the old trails he and his father used to walk when he was a child—through mountains rich with history but not much else. He tells me with uncharacteristic enthusiasm about the day he rode a horse to the place beneath an elm where his belly-button is buried. My grandfather dug a hole and stuck it in deep, then rolled a giant stone on top of it. He told him: aquĆ­ estas enterrado, mijo. That was over 50 years ago. With his belly-button buried in a hole in the hills of Michoacan, it’s easy to understand why this man, my father, never found a real home elsewhere—the umbilical cord which ties him to his land, to his past and his destiny, to his burial, is much stronger than the seduction of the “American dream.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Philosophy I

Philosophers talk of immigration within the sphere of a moral/political philosophy which considers the rights of people and the obligations of others to guarantee those rights. There’s a great deal of discussion, in this sense, about criteria for citizenship and the State’s obligation to its citizens. Ultimately, the discussion settles on conclusions which favor the immigrant experience as something completely a-political, as a natural experience in which all humans are capable of participating. The Italian literary giant/critic/philosopher Umberto Eco goes so far as to say that the most accurate term for this experience is “migration” instead of “immigration,” whose heavily politicized connotations belong to a political discourse of exclusion and persecution. I don’t think that changing the name will change our perception of the experience which the term seems to designate. In fact, in the US it is only “immigrants” who are a problem, not refugees, not exiles, not migrants.

The English philosopher Michael Dummett ups the ante by calling immigration a “human right” (On Immigration and Refugees). The only time when a country can limit immigration across its border without violating this human right is when its “indigenous populations are in serious danger of being rapidly overshadowed” (52). We’ll just assume that we are all in the US, and most of the Americas, due to some magical amnesty that absolves us from guilt. Dummet’s is a strong requirement with little to no application.

Even more interesting for us are the remarks of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. (It is interesting to note that all of the three figures mentioned here are European. That says something.) It is Agamben’s famous works, State of Exception and Homo Sacer, which really frame what could be considered a philosophy of immigration—both because of certain phenomenological insights which really touch upon the reality of the immigrant experience and because of their moral significance. In Homo Sacer, Agamben refers to individuals who exist in the law as exiles. This, the homo sacer, or the “sacred man,” is one who both must obey the law and who is excluded from the law’s protection. Immigrants are homo sacer if just because, at the most basic level, they pay taxes but lack the rights afforded to every other tax payer. Agamben argues that these laws of exclusion give the homo sacer his identity as an outsider. This analysis is amplified in State of Exception where such a state “marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur…and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real referent” (40). The immigrant identity, as the immigrant experience, is codified in in large part because of these exceptions--exceptions which reflect both a love for our fellows and an intolerant, nationalistic, fear of their otherness .

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