Monday, May 24, 2010


As the asinine immigration debate continues to swirl around us here in the US, my thoughts turned to Mexicans of a far older epoque upon venturing to the Getty Villa recently to view The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, the Villa's Aztec exhibit designed to coincide with the bicentennial of Mexican independence. 

I have been fortunate enough to witness the generosity, humour and work ethic of Mexican immigrants up close through many years of working in restaurants. These are who Noam Chomsky  terms, empathetically, the "insignificants", the people whose existence many Americans would prefer to deny or at the very least denigrate. We, as a society, have little patience for these people who in general are shorter, poorer, less articulate (in our language) and, yes, browner than us. We joke about them crossing rivers, sneaking through holes in fences and huddling in the back of minivans, packed together like cheap produce. We choose to ignore them as they clean our tables, toilets, floors and every other surface or space we manage to sully. As a waiter coming from a nation with much greater regulatory respect for labour, I was initially shocked to discover the paucity of their earnings combined with the scope of their vulnerability. Nobody was, or is, looking out for these people as they attempt to earn a living wage and play by the rules. Worse, there are millions of them being discounted and disrespected every day of their lives that they spend as an illegal immigrant here in the United States.

How do I know? Because I experienced it every time I would put on my apron and work with them. When a manager said to Carlos, a married man in his mid-40s with three children, "now you be a good boy while I'm gone." When we decide that all these people are our personal butlers and treat them accordingly. When they're told in so many unspoken yet direct ways that they're better seen and not heard and when managers, owners and even the waiters who are supposed to be in the trenches with them rip them off by paying slave wages for an honest, grinding day's work, knowing they have very little recourse.

As I walked through the exhibit, I was once again struck by and reminded of the powerful culture that thrived for centuries in these parts and the rest of the area we now know as Mexico. How much are our children educated in the history of the Aztec people, for example? How much would the average Arizona resident be able to tell you about how the land that is now labelled Arizona came to end up in American hands? The same could be said of California or New Mexico. Or Texas. Would they be able to tell you (or their friends who rage against the "threat" posed by Mexicans crossing our borders) about the incredible architecture, mythology, religion and way of life that was established by the ancestors of these same people who we now adorn with a sombrero and a ridiculous accent and ridicule or worse, persecute?

It is easy to forget, in the words of the wonderful evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, "how hard it is to become an ancestor." That we are not the only ones to come from 'grand traditions' and that, upon closer inspection, maybe some of those traditions may not shine so radiantly after all. Exactly what 'culture' are the bigots who wish to keep everyone out trying to protect? Flag waving and tail-gating? It seems possible to me that many American whites, in a fashion similar to anti-brown-or-black-immigrant Australian whites, may secretly harbour an inferiority complex; is all of their vitriol and violent rhetoric about the erosion of their 'culture' and 'values' a reaction to a gnawing inner anxiety over their own lack of true cultural tradition? Bill O'Reilly on Fox rails against the 'war on Christmas' yet what has Christmas  become for many of us, beyond some kind of mandated consumeristic frenzy? Maybe in what seems like the darkest hour for those who wish to preserve the traditional 'American' (read white) heritage, there is a growing awareness that as white Americans move further away from their own heritage as the sons and daughters of mostly European immigrants, they are feeling the effects of trading in the beauty, magic and psychic fulfillment that comes with ancient ritual and true ethnic culture for the more immediate thrills of non stop acquisition and consumption and, sadly, the same can also be said for many citizens of other nations around the world today.

 The Mexicans who arrive here daily, with little skill for English and no formal education that we would recognize, nonetheless come from an ancestry no less noble, proud or beautiful than any other line of peoples. They may not even be cognizant of their own histories but it resides in them, in their spirit: their foremothers and fathers' quest for survival and expansion, their wars, their love for eachother, their wanderings and wonderings, their hard lessons and majestic discoveries. Most of these people, with their grand ancestry, wish to play by the rules, give and gain respect and prosper.

We all have a chance to begin a magnificent new heritage by embracing them.

Pictures, from top: An Aztec pyramid and Coyolxhauqui, an Aztec moon Goddess.

No comments:

Post a Comment