BY DR. ÁLVARO HUERTA
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in the U.S. (and beyond), it behooves Americans to learn from individuals of Mexican origin in el norte about the art of survival in a time of crisis. (For this short essay, I’ll refer to individuals of Mexican origin in the U.S.—citizens, residents, immigrants, etc.—as “Mexicans in el norte.”)
Generally speaking, Mexicans on both sides of la frontera (too preoccupied to translate) have experienced a constant state of crisis caused by the American state and a significant segment of its white citizenry since the early 1800s. More specifically, since the Yankees stole Texas (1836) and current Southwestern states (1848) from Mexico, mi gente have been surviving under tumultuous, precarious and uncertain conditions. Regarding Mexicans in el sur, there’s a famous saying in Mexico which reinforces my claim: “Pobre México. Tan lejos de Dios, tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.”
Being family-oriented (familismo)—with the exception of the coconuts (brown on the outside, white in the inside)—Mexicans in el norte commonly rely (socially, economically, spiritually, etc.) on their family members (immediate and extended) on a regular basis. This includes what anthropologists refer to as fictive family members, like compadres, comadres, padrinos, madrinas, etc. Through these interpersonal ties or strong ties (see Mark Granovetter), we support each other with housing, food, baby-sitting, job referrals, money-lending, rotating credit associations (tandas or cundinas), etc. (This includes toilet paper! I prefer Scott 1000, 1-ply.)
During my youth, when I visited my grandparents in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, or cousins in La Puente and El Monte, Alta California, U.S., I always (to the present) felt at home. Apart from being served delicious Mexican food, whether hungry or not, I could always get more tortillas and open the refrigerator without permission. (In Mexican households, there are no labeled items in the refrigerator, like “Brad’s almond milk” or “Tiffany’s kale”!) I could also stay over for extended periods of time, if in need.
In terms of food, I’ve noticed that Americans have been pillaging Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Costco, etc., like there’s no tomorrow. During the global depression of the 1930s, living in a small rancho (Zajo Grande) in the beautiful Mexican state of Michoacán, my parents and family members survived on basic Mexican staples, like maíz and frijoles. Making/consuming tortillas hechas a mano de maíz was/is common in the rancho. (I’m sure there was much more variety in their daily diet, like queso, chile, avocados, nopales, etc., which I need to investigate further with my older relatives from Zajo.) They didn’t consume meat and poultry regularly until they migrated to el norte. (I think too much red meat contributed to my father’s death of cancer. He was only 67 years old. It didn’t help that the American government sprayed him with DDT during the Bracero Program, as noted below.)
Despite the powerful forces of assimilation and acculturation in this country, if the coronavirus crisis continues beyond the projected months, Mexicans in el norte (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th generations, etc.) will simply resort to the healthy culinary ways of their/our ancestors.
In terms of employment insecurity, this is all too common for Mexicans in el norte. We have always been expected by the dominant culture/class to play the role of the obedient servant. According to Thorstein Veblen (1899), “The first requisite of a good servant is that he should conspicuously know his place.” This is not to imply that all individuals of Mexican origin in this country engage in low-wage, dead-end jobs. Thanks to the Chicana/o civil rights leaders of the 1960s/1970s, including hardworking Mexican immigrant parents/guardians, etc., countless individuals of Mexican origin have had the opportunity to pursue higher education in order to secure employment opportunities unavailable to their/our Mexican ancestors.
In terms of education, there’s a common saying that Mexican immigrants, like my late parents, share with their Mexican American children/grandchildren to get ahead: “Quireo que estudies para que no trabajes duro como yo.”
Sometimes, however, even holding a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, like myself, doesn’t protect you/us from the racist gaze of a significant segment of white America! (For the record, I’m not a racist towards white people since my best friends are white.)
Regarding my late parents, they are prime examples of how millions of Mexicans immigrants work hard, sacrifice and suffer without economic security so their children have better opportunities. For example, my father, Salomón, first arrived in this country during the 1950s as a guest worker (or bracero) during the Bracero Program—a bi-national, agriculture guest worker program between the U.S. and Mexico—where millions of Mexicans toiled in America’s agriculture fields. They also helped construct railroads. As a bracero, like his paisanos, my father was sprayed with DDT by the American government and exploited by American agricultural employers. Exposure to DDT has been scientifically linked to cancer. Later, he worked as a day laborer and janitor at a wheel factory, earning $3.25 per hour for over a decade before the capitalist system broke him. (Following the example of corporate America, we relied on welfare for over a decade.)
As for my mother, Carmen, she toiled as domestic worker (or doméstica) for over 40 years. She started cleaning homes (and caring for kids) of privileged Americans during the 1960s, while living in Tijuana. (My older sisters, Catalina and Soledad, also worked as teens during this period to support our growing family.) My other older sister, Ofelia, would care for the younger siblings, including myself. Hence, I didn’t get to bond with my mother for the first four years of my life. Fortunately, I had my immediate/extended family to rely on, which is the Mexican way.
Speaking of family separation(s), Trump and his racist administration must release all brown babies/kids and adults from American cages with or without the coronavirus crisis!
In terms of how the nation is feeling threatened/endangered over the coronavirus, this is how millions of Mexicans in el norte (especially the male youth) feel in America’s barrios. I should know because I was one of them. Growing up in East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens housing project or Big Hazard Projects, I constantly felt threatened/endangered in the projects. While it was not something we talked about, violence or the threat of violence was omnipresent for all of the residents. By the time I was in either 5th or 6th grade at Murchison Street Elementary School, I didn’t think that I would reach my 18th birthday, especially given the high levels of death in the projects. Compared to national averages, this also included disproportion levels of incarceration, drug addiction, police abuse, etc.. Ever since a cop pointed his gun at me at 16 years old for making a rolling stop, I automatically get flashbacks when a cop car is behind me while driving, like recently (03.19.20) when one followed me for no apparent reason on my way to the market! And they wonder why those of us who grew up in the barrio don’t cooperate or trust them.
Hence, while I’m concerned about the disastrous economic, emotional and health impacts of the coronavirus on my family, friends and the public, in terms of myself, I’m neither worried nor panicked given all of what I’ve experienced, witnessed and studied over the years. This includes abject poverty, violence and hopelessness. This doesn’t imply that I’m trivializing/minimizing how people are feeling during this horrific health/economic crisis.
That said, while condemning moronic “leaders” with hunches, I am being cautious and following the advice of health experts, such as washing my hands regularly, keeping safe distances from others and staying at home, among other safety measures.
In short, I want Americans to appreciate and learn from the struggles of the Mexican people in el norte—past and present—during this coronavirus crisis. Once we overcome this health/economic crisis—which we will!—let’s unite and create a society without the haves and have-nots.
Dr. Álvaro Huerta is a faculty member in Urban & Regional Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Among his many publications, he’s the author of Defending Latina/o Immigrant Communities: The Xenophobic Era of Trump and Beyond. He holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley. He also holds an M.A. in Urban Planning and a B.A. in History from UCLA.