How The Minutemen Play on Fears and Fantasies

Santa Fe Reporter | April 13, 2005
On the face of it, The Minuteman Project—in which volunteers showed up this month on the Arizona border to “help” deal with Mexicans migrating into the US—was little more than a media circus. At best, the group’s existence has contributed to a re-invigorated call for Congress et. al to attack US immigration policies with renewed vigor. But The Minuteman Project also, in many ways, personifies the complex problems on the border, as well as the inherent conflicts Americans have over immigration issues.

Rubén Martínez is a renowned writer and thinker on the issues of border identity, and has appeared as a political commentator on Nightline, Frontline and CNN. An associate professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Martínez also is the author of numerous books including Crossing Over, A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail and The New Americans. Martínez and his wife recently moved to Velarde, New Mexico. SFR spoke with him recently about The Minuteman Project, immigration laws and why George Bush wants to save the Mexicans.

SFR: Let’s talk about The Minuteman Project. The group is comparing itself to the original Minutemen from Massachusetts in the 1700s. What’s your take on that?

RM: I love the ironies that have resulted from The Minutemen’s whole venture—or adventure, as it were. The first migrant they encountered was a lone migrant in distress—dehydrated, delirious. Just imagine this scene in the middle of the Arizona desert, alone, encountering a group of middle-aged, probably overweight white guys with Colt .45s and Magnum .357s on their hips. This is the big huge terrorist threat they’re encountering in the desert. That encounter turned into a rescue operation. The other irony is The Minutemen have encountered very few migrants over the last several days mostly because the Mexican army has been deployed on the southern part of the border, in the Naco area—one of the areas The Minutemen are hellbent on getting closed—and telling migrants ‘Don’t cross here. You’re about to encounter a bunch of crazy redneck vigilantes,’ and apparently have been very successful in temporarily stemming the flow. The Minutemen are basically standing around under sun umbrellas with their guns on their hips. The analogy to The Minutemen of the 18th century is just bombast and ridiculous. This has been going on for a long time and, in many ways, The Minutemen there today are less scary than a lot of the other people who have been on the border for the last 10 to 15 years. There have been executions of migrants, their hands bound behind their backs, shot to the head, cases by and large unsolved. It’s a scary and deadly place and right now, ironically, it’s a safe and quiet place. Whether or not this is fulfilling their stated goal of bringing attention to how border policy has failed is in question, but in my mind that first encounter with the lone migrant in distress, that’s by and large the reality of the border. In a time when the Justice Department is putting out into the press that Salvadoran gang members might have ties to al-Qaida and a dirty bomb could be smuggled across the border to east Texas, we have to remember the reality of the border that predates 9.11 and will last. It’s still by and large poor, Mexican migrants that are going to be gainfully employed picking apples in Washington or bussing tables in Santa Fe.

SFR: Do you think the passage of Prop 200 in Arizona’s November ballot fed into this?

RM: I think it’s part of the political moment certainly. It’s a political moment that’s had a lot of longevity. It goes back to the early ’90s in California when Gov. Pete Wilson was running for president briefly, before a deus ex machina struck him and gave him nodules in his throat that kept him from speaking. But before his voice was struck down by God, he was supporting Prop 187—which was the immediate precursor to 200—and that was a response by and large to the California economy at the time which was in deep recession. It had been so since the late ’80s. The industrialization had devastated the workplace and people were scared and people were angry, including my own middle-class parents. After the Northridge earthquake and the riots of 1992 and a season of terrible wildfires and floods, it was a California apocalypse. Nativists on the right were pointing the finger at the Mexican immigrants and saying ‘they are the ones causing these riots, floods and destroying the California dream.’ That idea, that rhetoric, caught fire and Prop 187 passed by a huge majority, 4 to 1. The vote broke down something like 90 percent white voted for, 90 percent brown voted against, African-Americans were split, as were Asians. It was very clearly this brown, white fight in California. It was deemed unconstitutional, but it’s the process we’re still experiencing today.

SFR: What do you think motivates people to participate in something like that?

RM: I think nativism is very deeply embedded in our history, going back to Hamilton and Franklin. A lot of the Founding Fathers had a lot to say about immigrants and it wasn’t always very kind. Benjamin Franklin was rabidly anti-German, for example, even before the American Revolution. The funny thing about American nativist rhetoric is it’s virtually unchanged 250 years later. It’s like The Minutemen or Peter Brimelow [author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster], or Victor Davis Hanson [author of Mexifornia: A State of Becoming ]. They inhabit the exact same rhetorical space. They’re channeling the Founding Fathers and their ambivalence because they were, themselves, immigrants. But they also were part of a colonial project and inherited the colonial attitudes toward race from England. So I think that’s the political beginning of America’s great ambivalence on race, ethnicity and immigration. Psychologically, the moment you turn nativist has to do with a tremendous insecurity: with your job, with your relationships, a whole gamut of things can come into play, but there has to be fear and insecurity, there has to be anxiety about your place in the world. Since 9.11 we have that in spades in America. We’re completely insecure about our place in the world. We’re under threat about this unseen enemy, which is the worst enemy of all, the one you can’t see. We project our al-Qaida fears onto the guy on the street, the woman who’s going to nanny some kids, because we need to put a face to that enemy. So we go to whatever’s closest and most obvious: the brown immigrant. I think it’s psychologically simply a case of projection.

SFR: One of the concerns The Minutemen have drawn is that they would attract white supremacists and the like. Do you think anti-immigration efforts often have a racial component?

RM: Or ethnicity or nationality. That’s part of our confusion as Americans is the fact that race, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, all these terms—or religion for that matter—we call somebody a Muslim, we call somebody a Mexican, a Catholic, we call somebody illegal aliens, or black or brown; we’re constantly interchanging these sweeping categories. It’s like we don’t have a complete grasp of what they are and I think that in and of itself speaks to the fact that we haven’t completely intellectually cleared up in our own minds what citizenship means in this country. I teach at the University of Houston once a semester every year and I had a student last year who came across the border as a baby in his mother’s arms and never was able to legalize his status. He finished public schools all the way through, went to Stanford University, got a BA, graduated magna cum laude and is doing graduate work and he’s still an undocumented immigrant. By the letter of the law he’s undocumented but in every other sense he’s totally a citizen of this country. He speaks English better than any Minuteman does. He pays taxes, he can do everything except vote and, by the way, he can never use his real name. From very early on he was enrolled in school under an alias so he’s not even himself. For him this causes a terrible existential dilemma. He’s living this lie, a lying citizenship. But in reality, and certainly in moral terms, he’s certainly a citizen. But our law can’t deal with those gray areas.

SFR: Santa Fe, like other communities in the US, passed a resolution that made the city a safe haven, meaning law enforcement officials aren’t supposed to ask a person about their immigration status when they encounter them for other reasons. What do you think the effect of such laws are?

RM: In Los Angeles, in the late ’70s, Daryl Gates instituted Special Order 40. Special Order 40 is precisely what Santa Fe has now. LAPD could not raise immigration status as an issue in dealing with anybody in any situation. That didn’t, by the way, keep—during the riots in 1992—LAPD from deporting several hundred alleged Salvadoran gang members. Nevertheless the policy was in place and the idea was you want undocumented people to access emergency services just like anyone else, that’s in anybody’s best interest. If an undocumented person is scared to call the fire department and the building’s burning down—you know what I’m saying? But the LAPD now, under Chief William Bratton, is talking about reversing that policy, saying: ‘There’s a lot of undocumented felons coming back across the border after they’ve been deported once, now they’re back—and once again raising this image, this flag with the image of the Mexican undocumented person as being a criminal, that’s a staple of the right-wing

characterization of undocumented immigrants: They’re breaking the law. I think it’s a no-brainer in terms of public interest and, thank God, New Mexico leans liberal on this particular issue for the moment.

SFR: You’ve been in New Mexico a year—is the climate around these issues different here from other border states?

RM: We all know New Mexico is the exception in so many different ways. New Mexico and Hawaii—total exceptions to the cultural rule. What’s fascinating to me, living in Rio Arriba, is that there’s a clear and obvious influx of new Mexican laborers coming up here, working construction, working on some of the ranches, working in the stores, who knows, and the Mexicans seem like they’re pretty obviously in their own clique. It’s not like they’re hanging out famously with the Hispanos; they have their own network. You know, one of my neighbors when I asked about the club up the street, Club Lumina, and who hangs out there, my neighbor—who is a wonderful lady—said ‘oh that’s the Mexicans, we don’t go there.’ And these are Hispanos who speak Spanish and English and talk about a deep history of ethnicity but Mexicans are something else, they’re from another country…it just raises all kinds of cultural and historical ironies in northern New Mexico. I was talking to Ike DeVargas the other day, and he was saying ‘we have this family in Servilleta who’s been here for three generations but everyone still calls them the Mexicans.’ Now that might be not just New Mexicans vis à vis Mexicans, but anything from the outside. I could live in Velarde the rest of my life but I’ll always be the guy from LA. There’s just the fact that so many families are so deeply invested in their connection to the land across 10 generations, 11 generations. But I think it raises a particular set of issues for northern New Mexico Hispanos in particular. Santa Fe white liberals…I don’t know. They strike me as white liberals anywhere. They want to do the right thing. They say ‘oh my Mexican brother, let’s receive them,’ and ‘please serve me that plate of enchiladas,’ but for Hispanos it raises very thorny issues of identity.

SFR: How do you understand the US politics of these issues? The Minutemen, and other groups, are critical of Bush’s stance on immigration and think he’s not doing enough to seal the border. Yet in other ways, these are conservative organizations. So politically it’s shaking down not along normal party lines.

RM: That’s very true. The Wall Street Journal, a right-wing organ if ever there was one, for many, many years has been calling on libertarian grounds for an open border. The Cato Institute wants open border and on the left, the far left, you have the same type of open border ideology. It’s really this weird political space in which you can have elements of both political fringes agreeing. The right wing does it on capitalist grounds—let the market regulate immigration— and, you know, I think by and large that’s already the case. The transborder labor market is regulated by the economy. Migrants come in fewer numbers when there’s a recession—look at a graph tracing border patrol apprehension. In a recession the apprehensions drop. Mexicans know when there’s work, they’re tremendous labor economists. As far as President Bush, he loves to hang out with Vicente Fox. They’re cut from the same cloth. They both belong in the movie Giant. They like their cowboy boots and their big steaks. I can just see them tossing horse shoes together in Crawford or in Monterey. I do really believe that George Bush’s family, because of the Mexican connection with Jeb marrying a Mexican, they have a mixed race, mestizo kid as it were, and George Jr. grew up in Texas, not on the border, but hell, no matter where you are in Texas you’re on the border…I think that Bush does feel like he’s in the movie Giant. And in the end, remember in Giant, where Rock Hudson at the very end of the film gets in that bar brawl because the Mexican walks in and the guy behind the counter doesn’t serve him in the restaurant. I think George Jr. wants to play that Rock Hudson role, he wants to do the right thing as a Texan. He wants to make up for the egregious human rights violations of the Texas Rangers. He wants to do the right thing in some way. It’s the script in his DNA.

But of course, the political reality is most of the Republican Party makes its capital on immigrant bashing and that goes far back in Republican history. The funny thing is, for the moment at least—and this moment, like we’ve been saying, is this eternal moment—everybody in the end, left or right, nativist or integrationist, is still living under the same situation we’ve had for well over a century. And I think there’s a vested interest in just about everybody in this country in keeping things the way they are because it keeps prices of produce down, keeps service sector prices down. So much of our economy, in terms of goods and services, is based on undocumented labor and the minute we do the right thing and legalize people and make sure employers are paying a living wage and medical insurance, all those prices start to rise. The nativist part of the Republican Party loves to rattle its saber about closing the border but, wink, wink, nod, nod, ‘come on across guys because I’ve got this tobacco farmer in my district and he needs a lot of pickers right about now.’

SFR: The two major immigration bills in DC, as I understand them, seem like they send mixed messages. One makes it impossible for illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses and the other grants temporary work visas so that farms and the like don’t lose their workers.

RM: Right, and on the drivers’ license thing, in California, it’s a political football. It’s one of the reasons Schwarzenegger is governor today. The whole driver’s license thing is totally related to the al-Qaida phenomena. It’s like ‘we don’t know who we are giving licenses to, it could be a guy in a sleeper cell disguised as a Mexican gardener.’ I mean, talk about national security. If we were serious about national security, yeah, OK, it’s an issue I’m not saying the first smart bomb cannot be smuggled across the Mexican border, that’s possible; but it’s much more likely to come across the Canadian border, which is largely unpatrolled. So there are national security concerns, I don’t want to say there’s not, but if we were serious about national security on the southern border then we should be taking unprecedented steps to shore up our relationship with Mexico, to make sure that there’s no threat on the southern border. We have to have unparalleled cooperation between law enforcement on both sides of the border. We need to have a regulated flow of migration, in other words, by national agreements, which we’ve never completely put into place, because of Mexican nationalism against the United States, because we like our undocumented labor. But drivers’ licenses—come on, you’re not going to stop the next terrorist attack with driver’s license legislation. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. It would really take steps toward integration and that’s what’s impossible for politicians to really enunciate in public because they’ve been making so much political capital over the opposite rhetoric.

SFR: George W Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Texas last month to discuss border issues. But Canadian immigration issues are treated very differently. Is this racial? It’s as though we just don’t perceive Canadians as a threat.

RM: Well, you know, the guy with the hockey stick and a beard, the image we have of Canadians…we do racialize Canadians; we think of them as dopey, docile, harmless weird guys up in the hinterlands. It’s a benign image, but still we have stereotypes. It’s also fascinating to see how the brown stereotype has been transformed. When I was growing up in the ’60s, the stereotype of the Mexican still corresponded to the image of early 20th century, which was lazy Mexicans. My grandparents in their Mexican restaurant in LA had one of those little ceramic statues of a sleepy Mexican, the sombrero down, hugging his knees, you can’t see his face, cactus behind him, asleep in the afternoon. Mexicans are always on siesta, they’re always saying ‘mañana.’ There’s two sleepy Mexicans in Española, in that restaurant Dos Amigos, two sleepy Mexicans for the logo. I haven’t seen that in public in a long time. But from the sleepy lazy Mexican or the Latin lover, those tropes have given way to illegal aliens, and there’s something sinister about this illegal alien. He’s breaking laws, he’s taking jobs away from Americans, he is a threat and he could be al-Qaida, so the Mexican images have gotten progressively…well, at least we’re not docile, at least we’re not sleepy. We’re very much wide wake in American imagination.

SFR: Back up a little bit and talk about how you became involved in immigration issues.

RM: I live in a border state, I was born and raised in a border state, California, Los Angeles, and LA’s particular dysfunctional relationship and my own family. My mom’s an immigrant, my dad’s the son of immigrants and so much of the family lore is about becoming Americans, but becoming Americans in the Latin way of becoming American, which is similar to some European immigrants, maybe the Italians, maybe the Irish. We became Americans in an ambivalent kind of way. I call myself an American but I’m also connected to Latin America, so I’ve been obsessed with that border, with crossing over it. It’s a very personal thing in the end. I came of age in the ’80s when the sanctuary movement was at its height and a lot of my mentors were writers as well as activists, people like Demetria Martínez who shed light on the border in the early days. So I consider myself a border writer. We’re a small clique, but I like to think we’ve done a little bit of work toward documenting the border in a more complex way.

SFR: In Crossing Over, you trace the path of a Mexican family that loses three sons in a border accident. Do you think the current issues relating to the border detracts attention from the dangers faced by people coming to the US?

RM: Border activists are trying to keep the life-and-death element of the crossing in the public imagination, particularly in southern Arizona. The Tuscon-based human rights group Derechos Humanos, the Rev. John Fife from Southside Presbyterian Church, for 30 years has been talking about human rights down there and the danger of the crossing. But I fear that their hard work, with the media in particular, is being subsumed by the rhetoric that’s coming from the nativist right, from The Minutemen, the Justice Department and those press releases about gang members with al-Qaida ties and that image, given our national psyche of the moment, fearing that unknown enemy. Anything that taps that part of our psyche wipes out all other imagery in an essential way. And that truly is a tragedy because if we’re only functioning like wounded animals, what kind of public policy, what kind of standing in the world do we get? Look at our foreign policy, so much of it is coming from that. But we also have another part of our historical psyche which is progressive and liberal. It all comes down to how we talk about immigration. We’re talking about one of the most deeply rooted battles over who we are as Americans and what we stand for and who we are in the world. And if we take the current state of the border and immigration policy as a marker, it’s a pretty ugly image.

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