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The Daily Wildcat

84° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Brother/sister duo address anti-Mexican racism in borderlands

Having been both born and raised here in Tucson, in the heart of the borderlands, the subject of racism and discrimination of “”the other”” has been a long-present matter of inquiry and engagement in our lives. It is unfortunately one that prevails in our culture, transcending multiple histories of today and of a distant past that are not, as it is often supposed, detached from one another.

A few months ago, we sat together in a history museum in the border region listening to a presentation on Chinese people in America. During the Q&A period, one after another, the audience members decried the racial exclusionary policies aimed at the Chinese in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They said things like: “”They just came here to work,”” “”They built our railroads,”” and “”The United States should not have excluded them.”” When we could no longer bear this bankrupt chatter, and hoping for a real dialogue, we interjected that the anti-Chinese sentiment of the time, though appearing in a very different context, was analogous to contemporary anti-Mexican/immigrant discourse. Silence. No one took it up, except for the presenter, who agreed with us.  But the audience members went right back to praising the Chinese and critiquing the leaders and people of our nation’s past. 

In discussing it afterwards we were struck that no one in the audience but us wanted to talk about Mexicans, or the connections to be drawn with the experiences of Chinese laborers 100 years ago. 

Yet the parallels are undeniable. Chinese were welcome since they risked their lives (which many lost) laboring on the railroads. Once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, however, they started to wear out their welcome. Similarly, Mexicans in the 20th century experienced a “”revolving door”” of immigration — welcome when times were good (the Bracero Programs of World War I and World War II), but undesirable when times were tough (the massive forced “”repatriation”” of the 1930s and “”Operation Wetback”” in the 1950s). 

Anti-Chinese activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries complained that Chinese, by working for lower wages, took jobs from Americans. They used a language of invasion. They feared disease, crime and immorality. But Chinese people still crossed the geopolitical boundary and Chinese “”smuggling”” became a big business. Sound familiar? The Minutemen and other contemporary anti-Mexican hate mongers in some ways mirror the anti-Chinese Workingmen’s Party (California) of the 1860s and 1870s and other hate-crusaders of that time.

Of course, there are differences, too. Today, the border is inordinately militarized. Perhaps now more than in the past, the removal of unwanted people is a mere fiction. As the historian Nicholas De Genova has put it, the United States deports a few undocumented Mexicans so that most — because they perform crucial services — can remain. The film “”A Day Without a Mexican”” (Sergio Arau, 2004), though problematic at moments and just plain goofy at others, made this point. 

But no one in the museum audience wanted to think with us about how the current anti-Mexican backlash both coincides with and diverges from the long anti-Chinese chapter in our history. It was easier to focus on the violence U.S. citizens and a government long in the past inflicted on the Chinese.

Most people may not know that the first border patrol was made up of men on horseback looking for Chinese during the Chinese Exclusion Era (1882-1943). Modern-day surveillance and record-keeping at the border are rooted in Chinese Exclusion, which laid the foundation for the rigid border control and inhumane policies that today mainly target Mexicans (over 96 percent of undocumented border-crossers are Mexican; the Border Patrol calls others “”OTM,”” or other than Mexican).

If we are to learn from history we have to seriously consider the ways we repeat the same patterns, albeit in our current context. If we refuse to resign a major injustice to history, where it will be out of reach, we can perhaps move toward enacting real change where it is really needed — here in the borderlands as hundreds of migrants die in our desert each year, and now as millions of other migrants are exploited for reasons not unlike those of the Chinese in the border region 150 years ago.

— Gabriel Matthew Schivone

 is a junior majoring in art,

literature and media studies.

He can be reached at:

— Julia María Schiavone

Camacho is an assistant

professor of history at the

University of Texas at El Paso.

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