Chumash Sun-Child-Adult Rock Painting via
My Grandma was born in 1922. In Iowa. Her parents were of German descent. WASPy. Her life’s claim to fame is never having missed a day of Sunday school growing up. And of course she walked up hill both ways to school. She left Iowa for San Diego during WWII to join the Coast Guard, where she was a telephone operator. (To this day, she answers the phone, “YELLLL-OH”.) In San Diego, she met my Grandpa, also a WASP, born in Indiana.
They moved to Ventura, a mission town. The mission San Buena Ventura was built in 1782, by the hands of the enslaved native Chumash people. The word Ventura is a variant of the Spanish-assigned name of one of the bands of Chumash.
Grandma and Grandpa bought a house for a few hundred thousand pennies, subsidized by the government’s post-war surbanization efforts. Cookie cutter homes grew up among the orange orchards and other farming lands. They moved their parents out from the Midwest, where they too bought tract homes and learned to enjoy the seabreeze.
There are pockets of race in Ventura County, pockets of wealth and poverty. It’s easy to see, impossible to escape. There are also very good burritos.
A few years back, Grandma started in on The Mexicans. They don’t speak Spanish, they speak Mexxxxxican. If they’re going to be heeere, they should speak English. Now, Grandma would fashion herself as a good God-fearing Christian. But she says the word “Mexican” with such a visceral hatred in her voice that it makes my stomach turn. That tone in her voice bothers me even more than the words themselves. Good Christian indeed.
Grandma, I said, native people more closely related to people now called Mexicans were here before this was California. The Spanish missionaries conquered the native peoples who lived here, turned them into slaves. Besides, people spoke Spanish here before they spoke English.
Grandma changed the subject.
On my other X chromosome, there’s an American mashup of something-something European along with a dash of Native American. At minimum, my gr-gr-gr grandma was full-blooded Georgia Cherokee, named Zilpha (or Zilphia). She married a white guy, Colston, before government policy drove the Cherokee across the Trail of Tears, and promptly moved away from “her people” to Tennessee and then North Carolina, setting up a homestead along a creek and spending the rest of her years knocked up. Because of this maternal lineage, and my unmistakable Indian cheekbones, there is a part of me that is staunchly defendant of native peoples, highly conscious of the fact that white immigrants overtook this land mass.
The Dust Bowl sent my maternal relatives packing from North Carolina, economic migrants, and they ended up in California. I have no doubt that my grandfather’s father suffered racism.
Both of my parents, then, were born in California, born of migration, Manifest Destiny, and long treks across unknown lands to find economic opportunity.
So I am native Californian, and I know that California was not built up by WASPy hands alone: native peoples, Chinese, South Americans, Japanese, freed men, etc. all had a hand in building this state up in the wake of the Gold Rush; it was never an all-white endeavor, and the people came from lands other than the North America. I know how lucky I am to have been born in California, and at the time that I was born. Some randomness of the Universe put me here, rather than in the slums of Bombay or the streets of El Salvador. I didn’t do anything to deserve this luck.
I suppose what is bothering me the most about this Arizona immigration law is this, the lack of historical context, the oversimplification of a very complex issue, the sense of entitlement and superiority that emigrant white folks in that border state have come to express. It bothers me that they group hard working immigrants in with every narco-trafficker. It bothers me that people would think it’s ok to think that someone “looks illegal”. I refuse to accept the notion that people can be illegal, that it’s ok to call someone an alien. Imagine it, someone saying, “You are illegal.”
The drivers of immigration are economic. U.S. policy, with our overthrowing of duly elected socialists, arming of militias, global lending imposed austerity measures, imposition of debt by corrupt regimes and NY money lenders, corporate globalization – all of these are factors that contribute to the lack of economic stability in the lands from which people migrate. But these are much harder issues to tackle. They take more thought than a xenophobic gut reaction wrapped in an American flag. They make us take some of the blame. They don’t mobilize a voting base. They don’t tap into hate, but rather, ask for understanding.
I hope the American body politic has it in us. Because, after all, we’re all just people.