Distance, Empathy, and the Challenge of Interpreting an Intimate Past
In 1994, the state of California put on display the uglier side of democracy: nearly 60 percent of the electorate voted into law Proposition 187, the so-called Save Our State initiative, which sought to deny health, education, and a number of social services to undocumented immigrants, or as the draft, reflecting the general tone of its supporters, called them, “illegal aliens.” Though a federal court struck down the law as unconstitutional in 1997, this moment revealed the power of xenophobia, the frightening extent to which racist attitudes remained ingrained in even one of the most stereotypically liberal states in the country, and how vulnerable undocumented immigrants were. That it passed, therefore, was hardly surprising; instances of nativism have been the norm rather than the exception in American history. What was surprising to many observers was that nearly a third of Latinos casting ballots voted in favor of making Prop 187 law, and that many more had seriously considered doing so.
Episodes like this remind us that even the most common assumptions—like the notion that Americans Latinos have an affinity for the undocumented and naturally reject nativism—have a starting point and a history of their own. In fact, although today American Latinos are in fact likely to see anti-immigrant attitudes as an attack on Latinos in general, this was not always the case. In 1953, the American GI Forum, a Mexican American advocacy organization founded by Mexican-born American war veteran Dr. Hector Garcia, along with the Texas Federation of Labor, warned in a publication titled What Price Wetbacks? that the “wetback invasion” they believed to be happening posed “a threat to our health, our economy, [and] our American way of life.” And as late as the mid-1970s, some of America’s most well-known Latinos were ambivalent at best about immigration, and often downright hostile, as was the case with Cesar Chavez, the quintessential Mexican American hero. Chavez and his farmworkers’ union, self-described “longtime champions of immigration reform,” once worked hard to track down, deport, and keep “wetbacks” out of the country and away from the fields. There were even nasty episodes, as scholars have recently uncovered, of the union brutalizing immigrants (see, for example, Frank Bardacke’s article, “The UFW and the Undocumented” and Miriam Pawel’s biography of the UFW leader, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez). As one immigrant and long-time farm worker named Isidro Jaüregui told me during an oral history interview about the topic, many immigrants feared the Chavez border guards more than the US Border Patrol. La migra, he told me, would just deport you. The Chavez people, “they would hurt you. They would fuck you up.”
Encountering stories like these inevitably elicits a certain response from the historian, especially when he is the son of once-undocumented farmworkers and formerly undocumented himself. How does one deal with such revelations, documents, and memories? One key to overcoming this problem, of course, is achieving a degree of critical and analytical distance, as Allen Mikaelian and countless historians have suggested. Doing this when one is so emotionally tied to the topic, though, is no easy task. In my (admittedly limited) experience, creating enough distance often comes down, ironically, to empathy. Properly unpacking this past requires understanding the time and recognizing the context in which that past unfolded, and this often begins with recognizing one’s own sympathies, assumptions, and biases.
My initial reaction upon encountering the darker past of Chavez and the farmworker movement—now well documented thanks to the work of scholars like Matt Garcia, Marshall Ganz, Frank Bardacke, and Miriam Pawel—was a feeling of anger and betrayal. Growing up in Delano, California, the historical and spiritual home of the farmworker movement, I never once heard anything negative about Chavez or learned about his stance on immigration. He was always portrayed as a saint—the patron saint, in fact, of the farmworker and of the mojado. My anger and frustration, however, were not just directed at Chavez, but at a generation of scholars who had failed, in my eyes, to tell the whole story and who had produced instead, as Garcia has noted in his book, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement, “forty years of hagiography.”
In researching and writing about Mexican Americans and undocumented immigrants, then, I must admit that at times I have found myself wondering whether I am analyzing and interpreting the past and its subjects fairly and with enough critical distance. And each time I find myself in that position, I have to remember that empathy, if it is to be a useful historical tool, as trusted advisers have suggested it can be, has to be applied universally. Empathy for those who represent mirrors of ourselves, to borrow historian David Gutiérrez’s metaphor, is easy. Empathy with those against whom we have built walls—in my case, anti-immigrant and nativist actors—presents a considerably more difficult challenge. And yet it is essential. A proper work of history, one that captures the past in all its complexity, must strive to understand why our subjects acted and reacted, thought and believed, as they did. If we are to truly understand the past and change the future, a simplistic, moralistic account will not do. This is a challenge I understand, recognize, and have to confront often, but that I must confess, two years into graduate training, I still struggle to live up to.
This post first appeared on AHA Today.
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