By Ruben Navarrette
As a Mexican-American, I'm hearing from a lot of U.S.-born Hispanics who are convinced that the immigration debate is a proxy for an assault on them, their language and their culture. The Senate fed that perception last month when it voted to declare English the "national language," and turned the debate over immigration into a debate over language.
Correction: This was always a debate about language — and culture and ethnicity. The Senate just made it official.
For many Americans, the problem isn't just that people are coming into the country illegally. It's that once they get here, these folks change their surroundings, maintain their Spanish and transform Main Street into Little Mexico. Those changes terrify many Americans, who complain about feeling like visitors in their native land.
And how do they respond? A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that tension over illegal immigration has contributed to a spike in hate groups and hate crimes. In fact, says a spokesman for the center, the immigration issue is a recruitment tool for racists and reactionaries.
I could have told them that. As one of the few Hispanic syndicated columnists, I'm treated like a piata. There was the reader who accused me of supporting "the Mexican invasion because you're Mexican" and the gentleman who suggested that by supporting comprehensive reform, I was probably "protecting some relatives."
There was even a woman who called to complain about a column I had written and ended up screaming into the phone about how "you people never understand" the immigration issue.
I understand this much: As the national mood on immigration reform turns vile and even in some cases violent, there is the very real possibility of a backlash by assimilated, U.S.-born Hispanics.
It makes sense. There is so much bad out there — from death threats received by California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to the deliberate burning of a Mexican restaurant near San Diego, to the beating and sodomizing of a Hispanic youth in Houston by two young thugs who, according to police, yelled racial slurs — that it is bound to repel the good-hearted.
Recently, my cousin called me in a rage after stumbling on to a video game in which players shoot Mexican immigrants crossing the border. The game refers to some Mexicans as "breeders" and splatters blood when players hit their target. Even as an assimilated Mexican-American with limited exposure to Mexico, my cousin said, the ugliness of it made him want to defend Mexican immigrants just as he would a member of his immediate family.
Other Mexican-Americans tell me the same thing. A lot of them use the same word: defend. They want to defend immigrants.
Granted, 40 million Hispanics aren't monolithic. Note the emergence of You Don't Speak for Me, a group of Hispanics who oppose illegal immigration. Also note that in a poll last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, U.S.-born Hispanics were divided. Fifty-five percent said illegal immigrants help the economy by providing low-cost labor, while 34% said they hurt the economy by driving down wages.
Here's the deal. The U.S-born Hispanic community is no different from the American community. There are the extremes, but the majority of folks are in the sensible center. Whenever someone does something dumb or hurtful, they recoil.
When protesters waved the Mexican flag, some folks in the middle moved to the right. But now that they've read about hate crimes and racist video games and English being declared the national language, some are likely to move to the left and toward a greater identification with immigrants.
That's what I saw at a taping in Los Angeles of the 2006 ALMA awards, which honor Hispanics in entertainment. In a 90-minute ceremony to be aired on ABC on Monday, there were at least a dozen references to immigration and many references by presenters to Mexican immigrants as familia (family).
Actor Jimmy Smits noted the irony of playing, on NBC's The West Wing, a Hispanic who gets elected president while, as he put it, "out in the streets, my people were yelling si se puede (yes, we can)."
I got stuck on the "my people." Smits isn't Mexican-American. His father was born in the Dutch Suriname, in South America, and his mother is Puerto Rican. No matter. In this fight, he identifies with Mexican immigrants.
Something significant is happening in the Hispanic community. People say the immigration issue woke the Sleeping Giant. But mark my words: It's not just the giant whom immigrant-bashers should worry about. It's his familia.
Ruben Navarrette is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist.
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