Tomorrow seems a new beginning with Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, and I am thrilled to be a witness and supporter to this change for our country. We are still in the dark days of our financial disaster and the unnecessary military quagmire of Iraq. Another unforeseen terrorist attack could worsen the defensiveness and cultural xenophobia too easily exploited by politicians. We have taken political steps to be more inclusive, to answer our problems differently, with a focus on those at the bottom and middle rungs of society, and to value competence over cronyism. I am hopeful we will succeed, yet I know we do not control our fate entirely: terrorists could still attack us, and immediately change the political debates in this country; foreign creditors own hundreds of billions of dollars of American debt, and their willingness to do so may waver in the future, with catastrophic consequences for the dollar, inflation, and interest rates.
Despite this guarded hope for the Obama presidency, I have also gotten the sense, by watching the news today and reading the newspapers, that Latinos are at the periphery of this change, bit players aboard the narrative train about what an Obama presidency means for the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream. Much of this is understandable: Obama is a self-identified African-American, even though his mother was white and his father was black; the majority of the American electorate voted for Obama as the better candidate who also happened to be black; the civil rights struggle embodied by MLK was primarily to redress the modern consequences of American slavery, including racism, segregation, and the political and economic disenfranchisement of blacks. Cesar Chávez marched and fought for the farmworkers along with Robert Kennedy, yet this Chicano and Mexicano narrative is often given short shrift in official accounts of the civil rights era. Were Latinos bit players to begin with? Perhaps in the 1960’s. But the world has changed, for better and for worse for Latinos.
We have become the largest minority in this country, with the highest growth rate of any ethnic group. Yet Latinos are Cubanos, Mexicanos, Dominicanos, Puertorriqueños, Centroamericanos, not a homogeneous voting bloc, not a race, but a hodgepodge group united by an ancestral Spanish from Latin America. We are closer to our homelands than, say, the English or Irish or Italian immigrants who came before us. Yet this proximity opens up the possibility of living in a nether world, between Spanish and English, between going back ‘home’ and making the United States your home, between identifying with the new Latino immigrant and thinking this immigrant is an alien. Is this nether world better than having a clean break in the New World with your ancestral past? That is an open question not easily answered by anyone.
The biggest change for Latinos today is that they, or at least Latino undocumented workers, became the political pariahs in the hate-filled rhetoric after 9/11. The drug violence and political instability in Mexico and America’s voracious drug habit will only mean the potential for more immigrants from the South, legal and illegal, will remain high for years to come. The hope with Obama is that he will give us a more complex, and more humane, understanding of the undocumented worker. The hope is that he will not scapegoat the weak, even during an economic depression or even after a terrorist attack. The hope is that he will include those who are outsiders, and attempt to help them become part of the American Dream, to help them integrate successfully into our culture, and to welcome the positive changes these newcomers bring to America today. For Latinos, we need to work to help ourselves, too.
Barack Obama is indeed not the grandson nor the great-grandson of slaves: he is the son of an immigrant. That perhaps is not part of the narrative train that has been fueled by the media or even by those who support him. But my suspicion, after I heard Obama’s comments on the immigration debate a few months ago, is that he understands what it is to be an outsider, a person who needs to define himself differently from established traditions, someone in between, a compromise, a bridge to where we want to be.