As the curtain falls on Hispanic Heritage Month, America’s most underappreciated minority is still trying to make sense of two different realities. In a Dickensian twist, the nation’s 54 million Hispanics are living through the best of times and the worst of times.
On the one hand, Hispanics are told we shape popular culture, will decide the presidential election and deserve to be courted by major corporations who want a taste of our $1.5 trillion in annual spending. On the other, we are face-to-face with a swath of fellow Americans who think Hispanics refuse to blend in, gobble up free stuff and favor an open border so we can bring in more immigrants who look like us.
One minute, Hispanics are praised for applying our work ethic and sense of optimism toward building a great nation. The next, we’re informed – by conservative radio hosts, bomb-throwing writers and snarky TV pundits – that the country that we have for generations fought for and defended would be better off without us.
After producing thousands of cops, prosecutors and judges, Hispanics are nonetheless depicted primarily as criminals. After years of giving to this country, we are still portrayed as takers. After years of learning English, adopting American values and carving out a place in the mainstream, we’re still told we don’t assimilate.
Thanks for nothing, Donald Trump. Using division and demagoguery to fuel his campaign, Trump has made it acceptable – even fashionable – for some Americans to say out loud what they have been quietly thinking all these years: This country was better off when it was whiter.
Is this shocking? No. It’s not even original. Do you really think that Trump is the first person to separate immigrants into two categories: good ones and bad ones? The Immigration Act of 1924 was all about keeping out Italians, Africans, Jews and Asians (bad immigrants) and fast-tracking the arrival of more folks from England, Ireland, Sweden and Germany (good immigrants).
Well, as long as we’re being direct with one another, let me tell you what many Hispanics have been thinking lately, according to the feedback to my columns and speeches.
First, a simple request: If people are going to get so worked up over the fact that America is becoming more Hispanic, they should at least take a moment to get to know a few of us. It’s not like we’re hiding. Nativists are having an anxiety attack because, the way they see it, Hispanics are everywhere. Well, if that’s true, then Americans of all stripes stand a decent chance of bumping into one of us now and then. So how is it that they’ve been able, over all these years, to stay ignorant about who we are and what we’re about?
There are three things that define the Hispanic experience in the United States: history, tradition and roots. Before you go off about how we got here, or assume that we all arrived last week in the back of a truck or at the hands of a smuggler, you need to understand that we’ve always been here.
I recently met with a Puerto Rican radio executive in New York who has worked hard and played by the rules his whole life. He has paid his taxes, served on juries and instilled values in his children. His family has lived in the Empire State for more than 100 years. And now he’s angry and frustrated.
“There are those who are more determined than ever to try to label us as ‘the other,’ ” he lamented.
Do you know what Mexican-Americans in Arizona or New Mexico call someone whose family has lived here for 100 years? Recent arrivals. In some cases, their families have lived in the Southwest for more than four centuries.
With Hispanics accounting for more than 50 percent of all Border Patrol agents, it’s hard to argue that we all support an open border. With Hispanic women entrepreneurs accounting for the largest percentage increase in business ownership – an 87 percent jump from 2007 to 2012 – it’s impossible to claim that Hispanics expect others to support them.
By the way, compadre, you have that backward. It’s the toiling of gardeners, housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for the elderly – many of them Hispanic – that frees you to go to work and spend time with your family. Hispanics don’t diminish your quality of life. We make your life possible.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., formerly of Sanger, is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.