‘They Picked The Wrong Latino’

by Steve Heilig, May 27, 2011

About a decade ago, I interviewed Latino musical legend Carlos Santana near his longtime home in Marin, just as he was about to explode in popularity again after long years of lower profile here in the USA (but continuing huge popularity elsewhere). He was great to hang out with; a bit guarded at first, as most very famous people tend to be, but then warm and thoughtful. He told me his life story, of growing up in poverty in Mexico and struggling for acceptance once he got to California. It’s an inspiring story (and can be found online in the now-defunct Whole Earth magazine by searching for his name and mine). Beyond his musical prowess, he is known for philanthropy, for “coming out” as an abused child, and also for making some somewhat mystifying public statements from time to time.

But he offered a real doozy at Major League Baseball’s recent “Civil Rights Game,” held in Atlanta, of all places — Georgia’s governor had just signed a law modeled after Arizona’s notorious and unconstitutional policy giving cops the right to demand immigration papers from anybody, and to arrest anyone without such papers.

Santana was clearly pissed, and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig quickly learned he had made a big boo-boo and, as The Nation put it, “picked the wrong Latino.”

As reported there, “Carlos Santana took the microphone and said that he was representing all immigrants. Then Santana added, “The people of Arizona, and the people of Atlanta, Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves.” People started booing, and Selig vanished. But Santana had more to say: “This law is not correct. It's a cruel law, actually, This is about fear. Stop shucking and jiving. People are afraid we're going to steal your job. No we aren't. You're not going to change sheets and clean toilets. I would invite all Latin people to do nothing for about two weeks so you can see who really, really is running the economy. Who cleans the sheets? Who cleans the toilets? Who babysits? I am here to give voice to the invisible...."Most people at this point they are either afraid to really say what needs to be said, this is the United States the land of the free. If people want the immigration law to keep passing in every state then everybody should get out and just leave the American Indians here. This is about Civil Rights.”

Of course, those who propose closing our borders — although nobody informed seems to be too sure how that might work in any practical sense — rarely address the questions Santana raised, and likely would not want to pay what food and other essential products and services would costs without cheap immigrant labor, illegal or not, to produce them. Our society runs on a semi-feudal system, and that's not good, but it's a fact. We can at least not try to make the workers at the bottom of that system live like we are still in the dark ages.

One friend of mine practiced emergency medicine in our vaunted “wine country' — and was appalled by the conditions many of the Latino workers lived and worked under. “It was worse than I've seen in much poorer nations, and all so Californians can drink cheaper wine,” he lamented.

Another friend ran a very popular restaurant for two decades. I once asked him how many “legal” workers ever applied to work in the kitchen and “back of the house,” and he just laughed and said “zero.” How much might food cost there if he was forced to hire only legal workers? “Double or triple,” he replied.

Santana’s — or anybody’s — remarks won't mollify those who disagree, regardless of all the evidence in the aggregate, the economic cost/benefit of illegal immigration is uncertain — the ledger is negative in some sectors, and positive in others. Dueling “think tanks” have produced contradictory “data,” but it is clear that many if not most of Californians, at least, benefit in some direct or indirect ways via lower prices of many products, and services like gardeners, contractors, and much more. Still, illegal residents do depress wages among one sector — high school dropouts.

Anti-immigrant people often mention that the legendary Cesar Chavez was against illegal immigration, which is true enough. But they disregard everything else he stood for, and as the insightful and often-funny syndicated “Ask a Mexican” columnist Gustavo Arellano's observes: “Know-Nothings love to repeat Chavez's initial hatred of open borders, so much so that a page on the UFW's Web site now claims Chavez was against scabs, not illegal immigration, despite reams of evidence to the contrary. But pointing out Chavez's original opposition to illegal immigration as validation of one's anti-immigrant views while disregarding his Aztlanista tendencies is like homophobes basing their bigotry on the Old Testament while not bothering to follow the Nazarene's insistence on loving thy neighbor...find a better icon to cherry pick for your rhetorical needs — unless you believe in the supremacy of la raza above everyone else, that is."

There’s a long history of flailing and failing attempts to “get tough” on immigrants, in the form of laws in Arizona and elsewhere, and a doomed if symbolic border wall. Vigilante “minutemen” sprung up, to no impact other than looking foolish. Public figures have faced disgrace for hiring illegal workers, which is hypocritical silliness. But there are some hopeful signs that (some) politicos are finally seeking some workable, moderate improvements in our immigration and naturalization policies, that would not place women, children, and poor people in general last. Let's hope so.

I should add that I am what has been called a “population hawk” — I believe that overpopulation is the root of many of our most difficult problems, and threatens the future of many humans and other species. But I have no illusion that “cracking down” on illegal immigration is any real answer to that sweeping threat. There are no simple remedies, but clearly, adding to human misery is no solution.

In closing: Right on, Carlos! Play ball!

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