Saturday, September 24, 2005

Over "There".

The following is taken from a discussion that developed in comments over at The Price of Liberty. I thought it merited its own post and asked Libertas for permission to crosspost it once it was rewritten to his satisfaction. I am very pleased indeed that he agreed.

The War Between the States and Reconstruction traumatized this society and tragically a culture that prided itself on hospitality grew ever more xenophobic. Texas is a collection of paradoxes as is any place so vast in scale. I am from San Antonio, a place that is about as culturally distinct from Beaumont as one can imagine. In San Antone we have for almost 300 years lived in a bicultural society and so are somewhat less prone to fear of the “other.”

Growing up in a predominately Hispanic town with an Italian last name has provided me with some unique insights into the bicultural experience. My name is the same in Spanish as Italian and hence I am generally presumed Hispanic until proven otherwise. This has led to some interesting situations. When Hispanics decry discrimination, this is for me not an academic thing since anything bad that happens to them is almost as likely to also happen to me. I have been turned down for jobs, yelled at by rude bill collectors, denied credit and housing all because of mistaken ethnic identity. So I am particularly sensitive about how the least powerful among us are treated, since that usually includes me.

But as a businessman, I also saw that the knife cuts two ways. I once offered to build a free website for the local Chicano cultural arts center. When they heard that a person with a last name ending in an “O” from a company called Tristero was offering to build their site, they were enthusiastic and called a board meeting for the presentation. When a longhaired blond with blue eyes marched into that room the silence was deafening. What was disappointing was they immediately lost interest in the project and this was one of the shorter meetings of my career.

San Antonio is no Utopia, but it is one of the most successfully integrated cities in the country. Almost no one from San Antonio presumes that a Hispanic is an alien. In fact a San Antonio Hispanic is likely to be 4th, 5th or 6th generation and to be more “from around here” than the multitudes of white carpetbaggers living in the suburbs. Hence, the relatively peculiar San Antonio phenomenon of Anglo natives who consider the suburban Anglo “snowbirds” to be more of the interloper than the urban Hispanic “illegal.”

We have a thriving Hispanic middleclass and a St. Mary’s Law School that has been producing Hispanic lawyers for generations. We even have a Hispanic old money political class that underlies the power base. The University of Texas at San Antonio has a Hispanic president, in this context ironically named Dr. Romo. Perhaps nowhere else in the country is Hispanic upward mobility so viably a reality.

Almost everyone in San Antonio, regardless of ethnicity or class, has Hispanic friends and neighbors. Consequently militant Chicanismo has been less attractive here.

If all this discussion of Hispanicity seems a digression let me explain. In San Antonio if you go to the emergency room your doctor is likely as not to be Hispanic. If you are arrested, the prosecutor is likely as not to be Hispanic. If you go to a public park it will be filled with Hispanic children and families enjoying the day. I love this about my hometown and it is only when I leave that I truly appreciate how unique San Antonio is.

A few years ago I designed and built a trade show booth for a software firm. I had to accompany it to San Diego to set it up. I spent a week in that beautiful city by the sea. But while there I noticed something quite disturbing. After a while I realized something was missing. Then it hit me, “where are all the Hispanics?” I had been downtown for a week and there were none in sight. No Hispanic businessmen in suits. No Hispanic secretaries filling the restaurants at lunch, even the busboys were all Anglo. I went to Balboa Park and not a single Hispanic family for days. Plenty of very pretty young white men though, playing Frisbee and cruising for company. I thought perhaps that explained the absence of families. I was wrong.

After a few days this really began to bother me. I could see Mexico from there but could not find the Hispanics. Eventually we had to pack up and I went in search of bubble wrap. Even though this was a port city there was none for sale anywhere near the ocean. I made several calls, finally found an address and headed out. I drove for perhaps fifteen or twenty miles due east through neighborhood after neighborhood where the most inexpensive home went for about $500,000. Then I came to The Wall. A wall about 15 ft high bounded “civilization.” On the other side, a freeway that was as an effective a natural barrier as a mountain range and more effective than the Rio Grand. Over “there” was the Barrio. I drove into it for a few miles and it was like a whole other country. A Third World country. Not an Anglo face in sight. Nor a middleclass face either.

I reached my intended destination where I encountered a Hispanic elderly gentleman who was visibly shocked to see my pale face in his hood. He seemed to presume I was a government official of some sort there to give him a hard time. I explained that I was just a working-class schmuck in search of bubble wrap and he was visibly relieved. But he was still confused and more than a little concerned with my safety, he thought I might be lost. I told him I was not lost but “apparently gringos do not use bubble wrap in San Diego.” He laughed and asked me where I was from. When I said San Antonio, he said “oh, that explains it.” I said, “Explains what?’ He said, “Why you were not reluctant to come to the barrio.” I told him that I had spent perhaps a third of my life in barrios and had long ago learned that Hispanics don’t have cooties. “In fact if I get more than about twenty miles from a good taco I feel an irresistible urge to turn around and go home.” He laughed and told me to be careful because not everyone would immediately understand that I was from Texas and not simply a gringo. He said folks around there don’t think too highly of gringos. I told him I was beginning to understand why they felt that way.

I returned to the convention center where union construction crews were tearing down the displays. Again I noticed the dearth of brown faces. This was beginning to piss me off. In Texas when there is sweating to be done there are generally plenty of Hispanics around. But apparently not among union workers in San Diego. When I returned to San Antonio I called up my old maestro. He was a stonemason in the San Antonio barrio that had trained me to fabricate marble and granite. Paul Flores and I went out and got a couple of much needed tacos.

This was an epiphanous experience for me. I had always wondered why California Chicanos were so pissed. Now I understood why. In San Antonio there is no Wall. Our barrio has an infinitely permeable membrane that is perhaps twenty miles wide. If one drives north far enough you eventually have trouble finding that taco, but there is a huge zone of geographic integration. In San Antonio only the carpetbaggers of the suburbs consider the Hispanic an “other.” Heck, most of us have more than one in the woodpile and most Hispanics have a daughter or a niece married to a gringo. So I was shocked to find out that on the Left coast racism and segregation were so endemic. In California, segregation is created by managing property values and building walls and freeways. But it is as effective as the most egregious de jur form ever practiced in the South. In some ways, because this discrimination is cloaked in class, it is even more pernicious since this facilitates denial of the horrible racist truth.

Since I returned to San Antonio from that adventure, I have focused my attention on “otherness” and how cultures react at their borders. I have looked for the synthesis that emerges and the hybrid personalities it creates. Sadly for California, it seems the hybrid is more common in Texas. I have come to believe that South Texas is the cultural laboratory that prefigures the emerging demographic reality of the rest of the nation.

Every time I hear Lou Dobbs or some other gringo crying, “The Mexicans are coming! The Mexicans are coming!” I am simultaneously amused and offended. In San Antone they are not just coming, they are here and always have been. When I hear the paranoid complain they are “being invaded,” all I can think is, “It serves them right.” After all, most of the new immigrants are moving to places with names like Tejas, Nuevo Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. Which makes one wonder, “Who invaded whom?” The Border is a fiction and it always has been. To all those scared Anglo-centrist out there, all I have to say is, “Get over it! Once you’ve tasted picante salsa you’ll never miss ketchup again.”

Ironically, It has been my studies of “otherness” that have brought me back around to my Southern roots on my mama’s side. I began to realize that what this country has been doing to minorities and to other nations; it has also been doing to my Southern brethren. I have been slightly surprised to discover how the methodologies used to study the exclusion of “other” groups also apply to the Southerner.

Because Southerners have been as guilty as any of exclusion, people are loath to admit that Southerners themselves have also been systematically excluded in American society. This puts Southerners in the paradoxical position of being both the poster children for exclusion and simultaneously its victims. This dichotomy is not easily appreciated either in or out of the South. Hence one finds that the apologist for Southern culture is equated with being an apologist for exclusion. In my case nothing could be further from the truth. It is my revulsion at exclusion that has brought me to the position of being a Southern apologist.

Growing up as an original Latino of a different stripe, with Southern roots, in a bicultural city in the borderlands has given me a somewhat unique perspective on this phenomenon. I have forever had a foot in at least two worlds, sometimes more. I have never felt truly a member of any single group. I am an initiate in several but not exclusively a member of any. I have always felt at least a little excluded wherever I am. Hence I am obsessed by the mechanisms by which we both exclude and include one another, whether those mechanisms be class, race, ethnicity, religion, language or geography. I am fascinated by the interplay of these phenomena and the complex cultural calculus in which we are all prone to engage. I am also fascinated by how inclusion in one group is determined by exclusion from another. If one is an initiate of mutually exclusive groups one tends to be suspected by both of disloyalty. It is as if we were more often judged by our choice of enemies than of friends. Regrettably, and more than a little paradoxically, it seems that the fewer enemies one has, the fewer friends one is likely to accrue. So it goes with “otherness.”

It is difficult to discuss such tender issues without offending someone. Even here I have “otherized” snowbirds, gringos, carpetbaggers, suburbanites and Californians. Yet at least two of those groups include me. If you are a member of such a group, it is not my intention to exclude you either, but it is difficult to discuss borders without leaving someone on the “other” side. It is my belief that the seeker for the Truth will find it between the lines in that zone of mystery and synthesis where the hybrid blossoms toward the Light.

Libertas.