Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Where's the HBO Series?

One of the benefits of my new job as diversity program director is that I get to do things like hold book discussions about books as remarkable as Sam Quinones’ Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. Quinones is a Los Angeles Times reporter now, but he spent over a decade in Mexico covering immigrant issues. This book is a rich series of profiles of immigrants north and south of the border set to belie most of the simplistic notions Americans have about border issues and the people involved.

We talked for over an hour Friday, a little about every major aspect of the book, starting with the two ideas in the title. Antonio is a character who crosses the border to get a tool he needs to solve a dispute back home; once he has it, he comes home. Delfino is a character who continuously inspires the people in his hometown of Xocotla with his punk stylings, his break dancing and, eventually, his ability to fund and build housing.

But he can’t find the place for his talents in Mexico, so he keeps returning to the States despite his desire to return home. In both Antonio's and Delfino's cases, Quinones shows how the migration of Latin Americans to North America has little to do with wanting to be “Americans” and a great deal to do with the limits of the economy back home. If anything, the country that is losing out is Mexico because the best and brightest of its poor and working classes flee the lack of opportunity at home.

One of our discussion participants, from Puebla, Mexico, talked about the other side of the story that is hinted at by the book. How people like Mitt Romney came down to Mexico and made their fortunes before returning to the states, or how the maquiladoras have been undermined by trade with China, so what economic opportunity there once was for the lower classes has been lost to the globalized economy.

One participant talked about how she was impressed by the industry that went into the black velvet painting business described in “Doyle and Chuy Wrap Juarez in Velvet,” and many of us testified to how the black velvet craze of the 1970s affected our hometowns and we never guessed at the rich, complex story (involving Palestinians from Canada trucking in such contraband) behind it all. That chapter, like the chapter about an opera house that sprung up in Tijuana, of all places, underscored the way people will create the culture they really need out of what’s available to them. Tijuana developed a relatively serious classical music scene, and Juarez managed to raise up a number of very talented artists who gained their initial training in the art of black velvet painting.

Another chapter that was a favorite for discussion was “The Saga of South Gate” which showed just how dirty politics could get when a Mexican-American politician exploited PRI tactics, but we also noticed the similarities to our own current electoral system. The inspiring part of that story, as with each of these stories on some level, was the way people found their way to overturn the corrupt political system that ruled their lives. How did they do it? House by house discussions, taking the time and offering people the respect of deeply-involved political discussions, something all but missing in our dominant culture.

The book was initially picked by our diversity group because of “A Soccer Season in Kansas,” which described how Garden City, Kansas came to rally around its almost all Latino team, made up of workers from the IBP plant (owned by Tyson foods). In what we think of as the most reactionary section of the state, white and brown had some rough transition, but found a way to come together for the sake of their team and their community. Also, out of the team success, several players wound up being the first in their family to go to college, and even some of the soccer players’ mothers went back to college to encourage their children. Also, a women’s soccer league formed after the inspiration of the male team, and they would come to be the champions of future seasons.

What we all agreed was that these warts-and-all stories of an America in transition offered a vision of a new America being born. And it’s a hopeful vision. It asks us to reckon with some tough questions regarding the new globalized economy, but it suggests people can rise to the occasion, time and time again, if we have a little faith in our potential.