A few weeks back, while walking through downtown Santa Barbara with a good friend, I witnessed an unsettling interaction between a homeless man and a young man. Walking past the pair, both my friend and I heard the young man exhort the older homeless man to get a job “like the rest of us Mexicans.”
“What an asshole!” my friend exclaimed and went back to give money to the homeless man. As he did so, I watched the young man proudly walk away into one those bourgeois Santa Barbara restaurants.
While I can’t positively assert why this young man felt compelled to say this to a homeless man, I can say one thing with certainty. It was clear that he intended for everyone to hear him.
When I tried to explain to my friend what had just happened, I told him to look around. We were walking through the “nicer” part of Santa Barbara and the majority of the people present where affluent white couples. In making this statement then, the young man had obviously wanted everyone in the street to know that he was different than the homeless man. He like “the rest of us Mexicans” was hardworking, middleclass and consequently an integral member of American society.
In other words, what the young man was attempting to announce to everyone present was that his Hispanic identity was in concordance with mainstream American identity. In making this statement, the young man was merely attempting to do the same that thing Hispanic political advocates have been attempting to do since the early 1990s. That is, he was attempting to help eradicate the long-standing image of Hispanics in the United States as impoverished economic burdens.
In doing so, however, this young man — like his political counterparts — was also effectively attempting to disclaim the large percentage poor Latinos who today reside in the United States. This desire to present Hispanics as traditional, hard working middle-class Americans is problematic. This approach perpetuates the hierarchies of power that place white conservative values at the apex of what it means to be successful. Also, by focusing on the positive image of Hispanics as a marketable and expanding middle class, the needs of the large number of Hispanics who still live under the poverty line are left unaddressed.
Although, surveys based on factors such as household income reveal that there has indeed been rise in upward mobility within the Hispanic community, these surveys omit one crucial fact. The rise in upward mobility noted within these surveys correlates with the rise in the overall Hispanic population. Of course there has been an increase in upward mobility among Hispanics, but with the increase in overall population the likelihood of any one trait increasing as well is only logical.
Today, on a national level Hispanics not only have the lowest educational rates, but the percentage of Hispanics living under the poverty line is still more than twice that of whites.
When attempting to sanitize this image of Hispanics in America, it is important to understand that upward mobility is not readily accessible to most Hispanics living in the United States. In order to understand this we have to understand not only the systematized racism of American cultural politics, but also the systematized racism and classism of the Latin American countries many of these people emigrated from.
Most of the Hispanic immigrants who have gained financial mobility in the United States have done so because upon arrival to this country they already had a skill that could be easily applied to the American market. Whether they are mechanics, welders, doctors or teachers, many of the immigrants who have been able to rise above the poverty line have done so because they were already members of the working class before they immigrated.
Subsequently, most of the immigrants who today still reside under the poverty line came to the United States with little more than simple labor skills. Typically darker skinned than their more affluent counterparts, these are the people who — because of Latin America’s racism — were barred from social mobility in their respective home countries. These are the same people who continue to be barred from social mobility in the United States.
To say that the dream of upward mobility based on meritocracy is open to everyone is therefore a pernicious simplicity that disregards all the socioeconomic factors that make that social ascendance possible. The belief that if you work hard you will achieve anything you desire is a dream that is hindered by the institutionalized racism that still restrains many Hispanics from being on equal footing with their white counterparts.
For this young man from Santa Barbara to have assumed that the homeless man’s condition was a direct result of his unwillingness to work, shows the perniciousness of this narrow way of thinking. By seeking to maintain an identity that aligns with the Conservative image of what it means to be legitimately American, we are ignoring the issues that are confining a large portion of the Hispanic community in poverty.
David Gayton writes about modifying social change through identifying uncritical behavior within cultural politics from the perspective of a gay Chicano United States Marine Corps veteran.