Thursday, April 27, 2006

I'm a Bad Mexican, Part Two

Even though I’ve attained a certain sense of peace about the position I occupy as the English-dominant, more-American-than-Mexican granddaughter of immigrants, I’m aware of the complications of my position regarding the planned walkout this Monday. An Ivy League graduate with a masters in English literature, I now enjoy working in hospitality, specifically as a server. My (current) career choice puts me, for the first time in my life, face to face with people whose families are directly affected by immigration law. As a Chicana who is more American than Mexican, where do I stand in this debate? What is my responsibility to the migrant workers facing criminalization for their attempts to provide for their families? Just how Mexican am I supposed to be here?

I was talking to my man who has recently been promoted from general manager and now holds a higher position in his restaurant company. I was saying that obviously any restaurant owner or company doesn’t want to lose a day’s revenue, but I think the issues are much more important than the amount any given establishment might lose in one day. I think affected restaurants should support their workers and give them the day off and maybe even close for the day. But as I spoke, I knew how unlikely that scenario was. And there’s no question about what my man will do on Monday: he’s been informed that if he doesn’t go to work on that day, he’ll lose his comfortable, salaried job. It’s ugly, but it’s the reality of the situation, even for someone who's not on an hourly wage (and who's white).

Then he asked me what I would do as an employee. My last job was as a hostess in a downtown restaurant and I said I would have asked for the day off. But his question was completely hypothetical because (as you know) I don’t really have a job right now. The new restaurant where I’ll be a server isn’t open yet and they tend to take Mondays off anyway. I just don’t have a big decision to make about whether or not to go to work on May 1.

I’m surprised and disappointed to find that I’m relieved about that. As a student, I used to be eager to join in public demonstrations and political rallies. Cutting class for the cause was exciting and fun. But now that I’m another member of the workforce such political gestures aren’t as easy, although they feel more important now that I work in the restaurant industry. I wouldn’t have looked forward to asking for the day off, but since most of my (former) Latino co-workers aren’t going to be at work on Monday, I would have felt obligated to join them. I’ll never know if I really would have.

On Oso Raro’s blog, Slaves of Academe, he writes of the current conflict:

And let’s be clear about one thing: this debate is really not about immigrants per se, for they will keep coming regardless of the risks and abuses. This is more about how we see ourselves as a society, how Americans feel about themselves, and their prospects, and who counts as a human being. Cycles of optimism and pessimism mark our history, and we definitely seem to be on a swing towards the latter, both in our public culture and intimate feelings. The old bugaboos of the "culture wars" echo here as well, with debates on American gender, race, and sexuality from the sixties returning to duke it out. What I find especially distressing is how we ended up here, for arguably the proposed legislation that is at the heart of this whole tempest in a teapot is mean and taciturn and brutalist.
- from Qué Onda Aztlán? April 4, 2006

For all of my ambivalence about how well I represent any kind of Mexican community, I have to respond to legislation that is this cruel. I would hope that any American paying attention would. I also respond to Oso Raro’s assertion that this debate is about how Americans feel about ourselves and who counts as a human being. Born and raised middle class (I was a teenage white girl), I was exposed only to other middle class Mexicans Americans when I was growing up. I never had the opportunity to know any undocumented immigrants until a year and a half ago when I took my first restaurant job. Immigration debates used to be purely academic to me. Now I can connect real faces with those affected by what is likely more post-9/11 hysteria about who is US and who is THEM, who counts as a human being and who is worth sacrificing for the good of our overfed, out-of-touch American egos.

So I’ll remain unemployed on Monday and I’ll march. I’ll take my place among the Mexican immigrants who have been so accepting of my culturally conflicted language abilities, as well as among the Mexican Americans who have looked down on me for not being Mexican enough. Just as the Catholic church gladly claims me when it needs to get its numbers up, so will the Mexican American community welcome my brown face at their protest.

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