Suarez speaks on 500-year legacy of Latinos in America

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Ray Suarez, host of “Inside Story” on Al Jazeera America, speaks Wednesday in the Amphitheater as part of this week’s theme, “Immigration: Origins and Destinations.”

The Friday delivery of The Economist usually elicits excitement from Ray Suarez. But the March 14 edition’s cover story made him cringe. The story, titled “Firing Up, America,” discussed the rise of America’s Latino population. The cover was an American flag — with the red stripes represented by chili peppers.

“Did they have to go back to ‘fiery Latinos?’ ” he said. “The article was well written and researched — and yet those darn chili peppers. Even when having a moment, clichés are never far away.”

A nationally respected journalist and author, Suarez has hosted “Inside Story” for Al Jazeera America since 2013. He graced the Amphitheater Wednesday morning for his seventh visit — his first since 2006 — to give the morning lecture titled “Latino Americans: The 500 Year Legacy That Shaped America.”

The magazine cover provided an illustration of the perpetual “tragic foreignness” Suarez said Latinos face in America. They have been here longer than the U.S. has existed, and yet they deal with challenges of acceptance and bigotry to this day.

“It’s as if America is a riddle or tongue-twister that we would prefer they never get right,” Suarez said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America will be a majority-minority country by 2043, meaning the nation’s Caucasian population will be eclipsed by African- and Latino-Americans. By that time, there will be 130 million Americans identifying as Latino or Hispanic.

Suarez briefly spoke on the elephant in the room: Donald Trump.

“He’s had a face-full of backlash,” he said in regards to his racist comments in his presidential campaign kickoff on June 16. “But he didn’t do what most politicians do — offer a mealy-mouthed apology we’ve all heard before: ‘I’m sorry if what I said offended.’ You have to give him credit for doubling down.”

Suarez said Trump’s plan — to charge the Mexican government $100,000 for every illegal immigrant — is so outlandish that another Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, had to denounce him as a “demagogue” and “wrecking ball” to the GOP’s Latino outreach.

Drawing from another unlikely source, Suarez cited Rupert Murdoch’s recent tweets critical of Trump’s rhetoric and facts. Murdoch tweeted on July 12, “Mexican immigrants, as with all immigrants, have much lower crime rates than native born. Eg El Paso safest city in U.S. Trump wrong.”

Suarez said the immigrant panic is easy to find and as old as immigration itself.

But he dispelled common misconceptions with three points. First, Latinos are not new; Spanish communities existed in America before Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. In fact, the oldest settled community in America was the Floridian city of St. Augustine.

Second, immigrants are here because America is here, whether it was invading Mexico, annexing California and Texas or claiming Puerto Rico.

Third, once a group of people become one-sixth of a population — in America’s case, Latinos account for 55 million out of 320 million — it’s no longer a question of “how those people are doing.”

“Once [the threshold] is reached, you are us and we are you,” Suarez said. “It might make you uncomfortable, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are intertwined.”

America has been a continent with multicultural origins from the beginning, Suarez said. While the American Revolution was fought by European colonists who were primarily white and British, he reminded the audience that the Spanish empire was much older and larger in America. The Dutch, Swedes and French also contributed heavily to America’s cultural and ethnic diversity. He lamented that these facts are often forgotten.

“An essential truth has been overlooked,” he said. “America has constantly been transformed by immigrants. And it transforms them too.”

He argued anxiety over immigration comes from the first point but ignores the second. The effect of America on its immigrants is consistently underplayed.

He said multiple times in his lecture America was undergoing “breathtaking change.” He challenged the audience to confront future demographic realities. One such reality: the two fastest-growing demographics are Latinos and what the Census Bureau and sociologists term “the old-old.”

“We have a large population of the white elderly,” Suarez said. “But we also have a growing black-and-brown workforce, and they are tomorrow’s workers. Today, those who are vibrating with rage aren’t asking: Who will buy their homes when they retire? Who will take care of them in old age? The same people who, in another time, they would not have consented to live next to.”

He recounted a visit to Sioux County, Iowa. Increasingly, the work on family farms is done by Mexicans under the employment of descendants of Dutch immigrants. These families’ children are not likely to take over the land. When Suarez asked the farmers if their Mexican labor might one day own the land, all said “No.”

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack — the current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture — had previously attempted to lay out a “welcome mat” for immigrants because Iowa’s population was dropping. He was promptly lambasted for his efforts.

“As we embark on what’s likely to be a long and nasty family argument in the coming year and a half over immigration law, with questions like ‘Who’s going to come?’ and ‘Who’s going to stay?’ take a look at the places where the most negative, outspoken, Congressmen hail from,” he said. “It’s an interesting exercise.”

Although half of all Latinos in America are in metropolitan areas, racial diversity is no longer relegated to the coasts. Nowhere is the change in America’s racial and ethnic divides more clear than in the South and former states of the Confederacy.

For example, a third of the doctors in the rural South were born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The breakdown of old racial binaries such as “white and black” by inclusion of Latino- and Asian-Americans contribute to the panicky tone in regards to immigration, he said.

“Old thinking about race is about to be challenged by the oldest thinking: how to make a buck,” he said.

The social map of the U.S. is being redrawn, and we are only at the beginning of future changes. The largest growing age cohort is Latinos under 5 years old, accounting for more than 5.5 million. That’s more than the entire populations of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and North and South Dakota combined, Suarez said.

“[Immigrants] didn’t come to America. It came to [immigrants],” he said.

Unlike previous immigrant groups like the Irish or Italians, Suarez said the Hispanic population is unique because it is “constantly changing and renewing.”

After the 2008 economic crisis and Great Recession, Latinos lost an incredible two-thirds of their wealth.

“When they had $100 at the beginning [of the recession], when the dust cleared, they had $33,” he said. Predatory lenders saddled many with mortgages they could no longer pay. Meanwhile, first-generation college students often walked away from school with massive student debt “that even death can’t wipe away.”

All of this matters, Suarez said, because they are America’s future workforce. It’s imperative they be educated, knowledgeable and financially solvent.

Immigration will remain an important part of the conversation in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, but Suarez warned the audience to not buy the hyperbole.

“Don’t listen to this coming debate as if they’re swimming across the Atlantic or crawling across the Mexican desert,” he said. “They’ve been here longer than us and they’re here to stay.”


Q: Can we talk about the election process, and do you believe that there will be a rational, intelligent, focused discussion on immigration? Will it be a large part of the election process? And who do you anticipate leading the most rational part of that discussion?

A:This is one part of the national debate where the candidates can really point to stark differences between themselves. It’s not going to be cutting the bologna really thin this time around on immigration. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have one point of view, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and others have another, and then there’s a group of Republican candidates like Ted Cruz and others who have yet another, and it’s going to be really clear where they stand.Though, once some of those opinions and previously announced positions become uncomfortable for them, once some of those positions become uncomfortable for them, we will see them trying to wiggle off the hook. You heard it here first, the day you see it happen think back and say, “Oh yeah. Last summer, Ray Suarez said this was going to happen.” Because Marco Rubio was a co-author of a massive immigration reform bill that was introduced in the Senate, and now he says that he wouldn’t even vote for that bill. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, supported a path to citizenship for people who regularised their status, and now he doesn’t. So there’s a lot of jockeying and shifting, and a lot of fingers crossed that we won’t remember what they used to say, just what they say now. So stay tuned. It’s going to be really interesting to see how this works out because the Republicans do have some extremely nuanced positions when you get down to details. So when you say, for instance, “Senator Rubio, do you support making many of these people legal?” He’ll say, “Yes, but not allowing them to eventually become citizens,” so that they become a permanent, non-citizen population inside the country whether they chose to become part of us or not. Now, that’s a very distinct position from the one, for instance, Hillary Clinton holds.

Q: On the subject of race, there’s a couple of different points of view, about African-Americans in particular. How many black Americans perceive and feel about the growing number of Asians and Latinos, and also, a variation on that, how can ethnic Americans, descendants of slaves, be optimistic about our homeland when we’re lumped with immigrant groups, assuming that’s true?

A: This is one of the most uncomfortable conversations in American life. A lot of people during the big urbanizations of the second half of the 20th century, looking from outside minority America, assumed that black and brown politicians, activists, would be natural allies because they were fighting for a lot of the same things: better housing, better schools, better jobs, the end to exclusions in unions that made it impossible for them to become members and thus made it impossible for them to enter closed shops to work. But black and brown people were often competing for the same scant economic resources, so it didn’t play out, necessarily, that they were natural allies. Every now and then, politicians would come along who would see beyond the grubby conflicts of today toward forging an enduring and larger coalition down the road, and I use as an example of that Chicago in the 1980s, where Mayor Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor by putting together a coalition of lakefront liberals, blacks and Latinos to win the mayor’s race over Bernie Epton, whose slogan was, “Before it’s too late.” And after Harold Washington died, the Washington coalition died. It’s one of the great tragedies in modern American politics, really, because this was an example of looking toward a different kind of urban politics, and he was the personality at the core of it that kind of held it together, and then everybody retreated. It’s possible in a place like Chicago that was as highly spatially segregated as it was and it still continues to be, that everybody could then retreat back to their neighborhoods and fight the fight from there as we moved on. So, yea, if you look at recent elections in New York City, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in Miami, it’s been rough, it’s been difficult, because with tremendous amounts of justification, black Americans often view Lations as at least economic competitors who are going to jump ahead of them on the ladder even though they just got here. They know bosses in many cases are so racist that they prefer to hire somebody who just got here the day before yesterday over someone who was born and educated here. It is an ugly conversation, and it’s a difficult conversation, and it’s one we’ve gotta have because who could blame someone who was born here, grew up here, and in fact has family that’s been here for 200 years that they’re angry that bosses who know that they can exploit undocumented workers would prefer to hire people for whom they don’t have to pay disability insurance, for whom they don’t have to kick in unemployment insurance, for whom they don’t have to pay payroll tax. Look, it’s part of what’s ugly about this time in our common life. Undocumented people often provide kinds of benefits to bosses that give them an unfair advantage over other workers and bid down the hourly price of labor in discrete markets, especially in places with a centralized industry and then a lot of nothing around it, like killing pigs in Dubuque, or killing chickens in Arkansas, or killing cows in Kansas and Colorado. It’s not like you just say, “Alright, fine, you don’t want to hire me here, I’ll just go down the road to the next place.” The labor markets don’t work that way. If you go out of town, there is nothing out of town. Those places have been hotbeds of competition between native born and immigrant labor in a way that leaves people feeling pretty sore when it’s over. If you’re looking toward a solution, one solution might be to help people get legal so they’re paying the same taxes you are and the same taxes are being paid on them. But in those same states, in Arkansas, in Colorado, in Kansas, there are people who say, “Uh-uh, the solution is to get those people out of here so some native born people have an unobstructed run at that job without having to compete against immigrant labor.” It’s a real problem, and it’s a real challenge, and it’s not one that we’re going to solve any time soon.

Q: This person says, “Please comment on how the entitlements available to today’s immigrants create problems for our nation. Those entitlements didn’t exist in the previous generation of immigrants that you referred to.”

A: Alright, so you want to do a little entitlement versus entitlement? You want to play that game? Here’s where we’ll start the game. Instead of starting the game in 2015 — where many people who make that argument would like to begin it — let’s start back in 1895. So somebody whose grandparents or great-grandparents came here in 1895 will say to me, as they do, “Yea, but my family played by the rules.” Ok. What were the rules in 1895? So you get on a boat in Hamburg and you sail across the ocean, and you arrive at a port on the east coast of the United States and you get off the boat. And when you get off the boat, if you are not one, really sick; two, really crazy; or three, a criminal fleeing persecution, you’re in. Those are the rules. Those were the rules that prevailed for much of the time when I’m going to assume, for the purposes of this conversation, many of your forebears came here. Maybe I should make a public announcement that I’m going to bop the next person who says, “Yea but my  family played by the rules” in the nose, and they’ll stop saying that to me. Who did they ask if you’re fleeing prosecution for crimes when you get off the boat? You. Now, you’ll have to forgive me if I think the rules today are a bit more complicated than that. You’ll have to forgive me if I think that people who have been waiting for green cards for 13 years, 15 years and 11 years are playing by a different set of rules from people who got here from Vilnius — weren’t sick — said they weren’t fleeing persecution from local magistrates, and weren’t insane. To me, I’m not insulting any of your grandparents, but that’s a pretty low bar. Now, let’s face it. Some of you who knew your grandparents know that they might have been lying about the insane part. So, if you’ve been paying a lawyer for 10 years, if you’ve made repeated appearances in court for eight years, if you have been keeping painstaking records about your whereabouts, if you purposely have not gone home because you know that would complicate your claim, you might be forgiven for thinking that the rules are quite different from what they were when everybody is telling you that their grandparents played by the rules. That, in the mythology of American immigration, that trope stands on the shelf next to, “Yeah, but my grandparents learned English right away.”

I grew up in one of those neighborhoods, I grew up saying, “You went to open school night?” And the kid would say, “Yeah, I had to go because I gotta talk to the teacher for my parents.” I knew the shopkeepers and the dry cleaners and the guys slicing salami at the meat counter who could hardly string together a sentence. They did not know what a participle was — or a gerund. They didn’t know what the verb and the subject were in the sentences that they were wandering into and having a tough time wandering out of them. So everytime I hear somebody say, “Yeah, but my grandparents learned English right away,” I think of the Spicklers upstairs, who spoke to me in a phenomenal melange of Yiddish and English. Sometimes I would ask my mother, after they would say something to me, and I’d smile and go up to the apartment. I’d ask my mother quietly on the stairs, “What did they just say to me?” These are the people who apparently were writing sonnets in the manner of Shakespeare with the same rhyming scheme very shortly after arriving at Ellis Island, and just chose not to share that with me. Don’t think that just because they’re not around anymore as proof, that you can pull that old, “Yeah, but they learned English right away” thing on me. I grew up thinking that Lawrence Welk was an immigrant, and I grew up thinking that Lawrence Welk was an immigrant because, look, am I wrong? Didn’t the man speak with a vaguely foreign accent? He was from the Dakotas. He learned English when he went to school as a second language and he was born here. Stop telling me stories about how Americans have always just spoken English, and “Oh my God, we’re going to be just like Canada.” I like Canada.