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CALIFORNIA, A HISTORY TO REMEMBER

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

from REFORMA, Sunday, October 12, 2003

"Why have you come to Los Angeles?" "What brings you to California?" "Why did you leave Mexico?" At the airport in Los Angeles these are some of dozens of harassing questions that some immigration officials put to Mexican travelers before the customs officials begin their meticulous search of luggage, regardless of the age or social status of the people. It is as though the ultimate purpose of the officials is to use any excuse to humiliate the people.

"I need a passport to go to Southern California," Lawrence Ferlinghetti said to me last year, making me aware of the differences between the liberal culture of San Francisco and the conservative environment of Orange county, land of Richard Nixon, John Wayne, and place of work for many Mexican immigrants. It was in 2002 when I was delivering the Nichols lectures at UCLA in Irvine that the possibility arose for my friend the beat poet, and I, to meet each other.

This comes to mind because it seems ironic that it is exactly in the state of California where Arnold Schwarzenegger, a grotesque actor who in addition to being the Terminator, looks without his makeup like Frankenstein, has been elected as the 38th Governor. What is worse is that the instances of his sexual harassment of women had no effect on the voting, thanks to the fascination, or rapture, that an empty Hollywood celebrity can produce in people. Among Schwarzenegger's first measures as governor is to repeal the law permitting illegal immigrants to hold driver's licenses. He has been rightly called the "anti-immigrant immigrant". Indeed, he himself was once illegally in the United States with an expired visa.

The sad thing is that anti-Mexican policies continue in California, the state seized from Mexico when our country could no longer hold on to its vast territory, whose makeup is largely Hispanic. It might be that the governor of Austrian origin does not know the history of California, whose name, some say, was given by Hernan Cortez.

Here, as a reminder, is a brief history, one that at the present time is wished to be forgotten, consciously or unconsciously, by a population that is tired of Mexican immigration. Pre-Hispanic California, inhabited by the "Californians", Yumas and Guaricurues, was thought by Hernando de Grijalva to be an island. The first arrivals were Francisco de Ulloa (1539) and Domingo de Castillo (1540). The Spanish navigator Juan Rodriguez explored the region around present day Santa Barbara. Around 1602-1603, the trader Sebastian Vizcaino discovered the bays of San Diego and Monterrey. His own name was later given to the extraordinary Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, the whale sanctuary at the San Ignacio Lagoon, an area that Ernesto Zedillo, as President, tried to convert into the largest saltworks in the world. California was converted to Christianity by the Jesuits, and the Franciscan missionaries from Spain such as Padre Kino and JuniperoSerra (who in 1769 founded the first mission in San Diego). The one in San Francisco was founded in1776.

When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the settlements of Hispanic Mexicans known as "Californians" increased and by 1830, La Paz was capital of Lower California and Monterrey of Upper California. In May of 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico, and in June of 1847 the "Californians" surrendered to Major John C. Fremont at Cahuenga Pass, near Los Angeles. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, Mexico ceded to the United States all of Upper California, New Mexico and Texas. On January 24 of that year, upon the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, the property of a German speaking immigrant, there began the fevered immigration of some 100,000 people in search of the yellow metal. "You Mexicans have (Antonio Lopez) Santa Anna to blame for that", declared the muscular actor Sylvester Stallone, referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger's election. To that I would extend blame to all the Santa Annas of the 20th Century.

Apart from the "Californians" who remained in the territories now belonging to the United States, in 1910 groups of Mexicans crossed the border seeking refuge from the violence and instability produced by the Mexican Revolution. Waves of workers followed and, in time, formed the Mexican (Chicano) population of the United States. The names of Mexican immigrants have changed with the times: braceros, wetbacks, illegals, undocumented.

Here is not a place for historical complaints about the loss of a vast territory in an unjust war, but rather to call attention to the incongruous fact, that a state once Mexican now has a governor with anti-Mexican tendencies, one who arrived from his native Austria long after the ancestors of those Mexicans whom he may despise and see as only a social burden. Unfortunately Mexico, where a few years ago FORBES magazine counted 24 multimillionaires, has become a great exporter of poor and unemployed people driven to cross the frontier wherever and however they can. This is thanks to ineffectual efforts by successive Ministers of Agriculture, and the unbridled corruption of some feudal lords holding respectable titles such as Minister or Governor (heads of human pyramids of functionaries of all shades of stature and manipulation). The shame of those compatriots who wish to pass to the other side regardless of humiliations, blows received, repeated repatriations and the real possibility of dying in the attempt, is our shame.

The regrettable fact is that the Hispanic residents of California, with 2 million 427 thousand registered voters, and 2 million Mexicans, were unable to mount an effective opposition to this actor without political experience, who will have great influence upon their lives, especially immigrants, who will become scapegoats for the economic problems of California. It is ironical that the Hispanics, masters of kicking a ball into their own goal, gave Schwarzenegger 30% of their vote. Hispanic apathy and ignorance in politics perhaps originates in the Latin American countries, where a lack of democracy and respect for human rights is a stain on their history. For a rural Mexican, illiterate in Spanish and accustomed to having his vote stolen in his own state, it is going to be difficult to defend his civic rights in a foreign land with a sophisticated political structure, and where passing a test in English is a requirement for citizenship.

With or without Schwarzenegger, it is important that relations between the "golden" state and Mexico, historically and geographically linked for centuries, not be changed by a few years of government. Before and after the Terminator, the only civilized way of resolving border conflicts is through neighborly goodwill. Being conscious of our common history is a necessity because, in the relation of states and of human beings, the past is the future.


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