Cultural Citizenship and the “Greaser Laws” of the 21st Century

Latinos are disappearing from the public schools, from the restaurant kitchens, from the construction sites, and from the farm fields of Alabama.

The nativists, xenophobes, racists, and Republican Party activists and legislators who support the harsh new immigration bill (HB 56) targeting undocumented migrants in the state are delighted.

The flight of thousands of Latinos from the state regardless of legal status is not an unforeseen consequence of the legislation — it’s the entire point. As Lindsey Lyons, the mayor of Albertville, Alabama, put it in an interview with National Public Radio: “[W]e’re going to see an exodus of those moving to other states that don’t have any pending legislation.” The point is not immigration reform; the point is to make the growing Latino population go away.

For the law’s authors and backers, the state of Alabama is living a fantasy they have long wished, and worked, to see play out on a national level. Importantly, the fantasy of a vanishing Latino population is not strictly a legal one. It is, in fact, a cultural project, and it has a long history.

Culture, Power and Illusion

How do you make tens of millions of Latinos disappear from the national public sphere? This is a spectacular trick, on the order of illusionist David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty vanish in front of a live television audience. Copperfield’s 1983 deception relied on the cover of darkness and strategic manipulation of the audience’s perspective. The trickery that seeks the relative public invisibility of Latinos in the U.S. is performed in broad daylight using a combination of rhetorical manipulations and legislative measures.

We are all familiar with the rhetoric by now. The constant, drum beat-like association by anti-immigrant nativists of the terms “illegal” and “Mexican” and “immigrant,” amplified and reproduced in the news media and in demagogic political discourse, has created a semantic cloud obscuring the presence, in plain view, of diverse millions of Latinos in American public life.

A restaurant owner in my Minneapolis neighborhood who had emigrated (legally) from Ecuador told me about being questioned by police while taking a summer walk with his son. The police officers’ dogged assumption was that he was Mexican, and they seemed to believe that he had entered the U.S. illegally.

“I am from Ecuador,” he told me, “but all they could see was an illegal Mexican.” The Statue of Liberty, one might say, disappeared before his very eyes.

The public illusion in this instance results from cultural messaging that denies Latinos full cultural citizenship – the right to be different and to bring that difference into the public process. Theoretically, all citizens have equality under the law. In practice, however, public cultural norms are structured by an often unspoken hierarchy of values that privileges some citizens over others.

Think about how in a public meeting the fellow citizen who speaks an English accented by non-English phonetics might carry less moral authority with her audience than the fluent English speaker, despite being equally understandable and possessing the same legal rights. Or think of how a man wearing a West African dashiki might be assumed by many in a U.S. audience to be a non-citizen. Social hierarchies of race, class, gender, and age are reflected in recognition, or denial, of full cultural citizenship to different social groups.

Markers of cultural difference in the body politic can be, and often are, converted into signs of second-class status. This is an important intersection of culture and politics in the U.S., and one exploited actively by those who would make Latinos disappear from the public sphere.

The targeting of immigrants with the rhetorical hammer of “illegal,” pounds into place a chain of equivalences in the public mind. Where Latinos are concerned, the anti-immigrant anvil and hammer of “illegal” and “Mexican” seek to remake brown skin, the Spanish language, and other markers of Latino visibility as signposts of the outer boundaries of American public life. “They,” non-Latinos are being told, are not like “us.”

Behind the media sensationalism and electoral campaign posturing lays a politics of cultural containment and subordination, and of civic divisiveness. As the facile external markers of Latino identity are transformed into the civic equivalent of scarlet letters, Latinos are implicitly rendered less legitimate as public actors, and less visible as fellow citizens. In the process, any resources particular to their cultural heritage that they might bring to the national project are categorically segregated and expelled from the public sphere.

Spanish is preempted as a language of legitimate civic engagement. Regions of the country are subtly (and not so subtly) dispossessed of their rich Hispanic heritage in the minds of many Americans, who are encouraged to forget the pluricultural history etched into Spanish-language place names like Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.

The U.S. public’s ignorance about Puerto Ricans — who are born United States citizens since passage of the Jones Act in 1917, although without the right to vote in U.S. elections — is deepened and extended to another generation. Bilingualism becomes suspect, rather than being recognized as a tremendous national economic and cultural resource and a civic virtue. Important forms of public culture — murals, corridos, pachangas — are marked as Other. Voices critical of U.S. foreign policy — with personal experience of the human rights implications for Salvadorans, for Guatemalans, and others, of military funding or trade agreements — are silenced.

And my Ecuadorian-American neighbor finds himself caught up in a mass cultural deception that denies him full cultural citizenship, despite his undeniable legal rights. He is denied the power to define his own public presence, his own identity as a fellow citizen, and to be recognized as fully American.

Laws, Politics, and Culture

The dark magic worked by manipulative public rhetoric has its limits, thankfully. People can endure, and respond to, name-calling. And public discourse is never a one-sided affair. My Ecuadorian-American neighbor, for example, has undoubtedly told his story to many of his fellow local citizens, generating a retail-level awareness that counterbalances in some measure the wholesale misrepresentation of national realities by anti-immigrant sensationalism. Educators continue to teach Spanish, and student interest in the language has grown alongside the growing number of Americans who understand the political and economic and cultural value of bilingualism.

And at some point, the anti-immigrant talk begins to say more about the speaker than about the object of the speaker’s rancor. Of the 308 million heads counted by the 2010 Census, more than 50 million, or greater than 16%, identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino. At some point, talking as if 16% of the nation doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist becomes a fool’s strategy.

This is where the policy mechanisms of the cynical anti-Latino vanishing act come into play. A confluence of xenophobic, nativist and Republican Party interests — having watched demographic changes unfold over the past two decades, and their electoral consequences begin to take hold — see an even greater need to contain Latino culture and subordinate Latino public involvement. They have learned that rhetoric alone will no longer do the trick.

Predictably, after the 2008 elections resulted in convincing victories for the Democratic Party with sizable margins of support among Latino voters, several Republican state legislatures have approved laws targeting undocumented immigrants in several states.

The Arizona state legislature in 2010 approved SB 1070, a law that criminalizes the failure to carry immigration documents and allows police to detain anyone suspected of being an undocumented migrant. (In order to make clear that the political and cultural target included Latino citizens, the Republican majority also passed a law banning the teaching of Ethnic Studies in the public schools.) In 2011, Georgia, Indiana, Utah, and South Carolina subsequently passed their own versions of the Arizona law, similarly promoting racial profiling and criminalizing social and economic interaction with undocumented immigrants.

Not to be outdone, Alabama passed HB 56, a law that, among other things, bars undocumented immigrants from attending state colleges, criminalizes “transporting, harboring, or renting property” to them, and requires public schools to verify the legal status of their students.

The laws bring state power — in the form of racial profiling — to bear on the cultural messaging that subordinates and marginalizes Latinos’ presence in the public arena. One measure of the cultural effect of the Alabama law: those Latino children who haven’t disappeared from the public schools now report they are bullied for being “illegals.”

All of these states share two key elements: First, state government is controlled by the Republican Party, and second, the 2010 Census found a dramatic growth rate among the Latino/Hispanic population that sooner or later could jeopardize Republican political dominance in the state.

Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama saw eye-popping growth rates for the Latino/Hispanic population, 96.1%, 147.9%, and 144.8%, respectively. Indiana’s growth rate for the Hispanic or Latino category was 81.7%, and Utah’s was 77.8%, nearly double the national growth rate for that sector of the population. In the case of Arizona, population growth among Latinos/Hispanics was a “mere” 46.3%, but what was likely more troubling for Republicans, racists and xenophobes, the Latino/Hispanic population had grown to represent approximately 30% of the state population.

It is difficult not to view these states’ anti-immigrant legislation as a preemptive effort to change the demographic facts for future elections, and prior to the inevitable moment in which comprehensive federal immigration policy reform provides a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million or more undocumented immigrants nationwide, principally from Mexico and Central America.

At the same time, the state-by-state anti-immigrant legislation can be viewed as a desperate effort to use the law to leverage an extended life for the cultural politics that has long sought to subordinate and diminish Latino participation in the public sphere.

Redefining America

The stakes of the present conjuncture are not just electoral and legal. The cultural parameters of U.S. public life are also in play. The long-term stakes are nothing less than the means and meaning of democratic public life in America, i.e., the question of who is allowed to speak, and how, and about what.

It is important to remember (and remind) that the cultural politics that denies Latinos equality in American public life has a long history. Current efforts to drive Latinos out of public life find common parentage in the assaults on Mexican-Americans that occurred after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the U.S.-Mexico war and called for Mexico to relinquish roughly half of its national territory to the U.S.

The 1848 Treaty included an option for U.S. citizenship for the many Mexicans who suddenly found themselves living in U.S. territory, but xenophobic and racist sentiment conspired with economic interests to drive Mexicans off their land throughout the region, and to strip them of their mining stakes in California. One of the myriad ways these interests operated on the social body to excise the Mexican-American presence was the passage of legislation that directly targeted these would-be citizens.

The “Greaser” laws (as they were called by their proponents) included an 1855 anti-vagrancy statue in California that explicitly applied to “All persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood… and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons.” This legislative assault on the public presence of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans was preceded by the 1850 Foreign Miner’s Tax, which levied an exorbitant monthly license fee on the mining claims of the foreign-born, with the practical effect of driving Mexicans and Latin Americans (and French and Germans) off their claims in the context of the Gold Rush. Of course, the xenophobic hostility stoked against Spanish-speakers made no distinction between native-born Californios and Mexicans.

The cultural politics that aims to make Latinos disappear cannot overcome the blunt object reality of a growing population. David Copperfield could make the Statue of Liberty seem to disappear, but when the sun came up the next morning, there it was. The difference is that Copperfield wasn’t attempting to change the meaning of Liberty.

Recent nativist attempts to update the 19th century “Greaser laws” for the 21st century will not, ultimately, make Latinos literally disappear. But the trickery in this instance changes the potential meaning of America, diminishes democratic possibilities, preempts current and future potential dialogue and social relationships. Cultural resources and perspectives that Latinos could bring to the common table are diminished and sidelined. Efforts to counter the inequality these laws promote must systematically engage the cultural dimension of the struggle over American democracy.

Bruce Campbell teaches Latino/Latin American Studies, among other things, at College of St. Benedict/St. John's University in MN. He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona Press, 2003), ¡Viva la historieta!: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), and the English translation of Santiago García's On the Graphic Novel (University Press of Mississippi, 2015) and Jorge Majfud's Neomedievalism: Reflections on the Post-Enlightenment Era (University of Valencia, 2018). Read other articles by Bruce.