(from the March/April 2011 American Book Review)
by Ricardo Gilb
Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol
Kelly Lytle Hernandez
University of California Press, 2010, 336 pp.
As a kid, I knew more than most: I grew up in a literary household, and I was around writers from the time I was a baby. I heard plenty discussions of Chicano politics and Movement history, but I always had the feeling that this Chicanísmo wasn't something continuous with my own life. I thought it was just the peculiar nostalgia of an older generation of Chicano intellectuals.
This was El Paso, Texas, about as thoroughly Mexican American as any city could be. Everyone my age thought “Chicano” was just another vague term that described the vague sense of identity that most felt in that city. It was Mexican, it was American, and we had no idea how to describe the mixture, nor did we have any sense that it mattered very much. I would go to friends' houses to play Mortal Kombat and listen to Zeppelin while someone's abuela yelled in Spanish. Being Mexican was like being a Catholic. It wasn't something to worry about too much; it was something only grandmothers, and every once in a while your own mom too, worried about.
College was different. Stanford, where I was an undergrad, had its El Centro Chicano right in the middle of campus, and I would go sometimes to check my email, maybe use the free printer, and I'd see the announcements for upcoming lectures on Chicano issues, labor protests on campus, even a Chicano Thanksgiving.
In college everyone was talking about identity. Not just casual discussions among young people transitioning out their teenage years, but every discussion of history, of American culture, of university admissions policies, seemed to include some statement of one's personal background as a sort of disclaimer. I learned to be on the lookout for stereotypes, for Eurocentrism, got used to calling traditional history courses “Western,” learned to not judge other cultures by modern American standards. I even learned the word heteronormative. I constantly had to talk constantly about where I was from, and explain—sometimes inventing along the way—what it meant to be Mexican American, to grow up along the border, to be a Chicano.
For me this college experience wasn't exactly an awakening or a rebirth, the way I know it is for some, who are excited by the discovery of their own history, excited about learning who they really are. Those that feel like that aren't wrong to be excited, but neither were us kids in El Paso wrong not to be worried about our identity, to not care about what word anyone used to describe themselves. What I learned in college was that there was a strange and new division in our culture, between the educated middle-class Chicanos that cared about being called Chicanos, and the rest of the community, that didn't think about it and didn't care much, for better or worse.
What I realized was that the legacy of the Chicano Movement is now in the university. Scholarship has become one of the principal means by which the Movement ideals of inclusion, representation and respect for the Chicano people are transmitted to young people. And it is a particular, academic version of the Movement that is being transmitted, going from professors with with their PhDs and their academic concerns to college students looking trying their hardest for good grades and good careers. And so it is a version focused not on grassroots labor struggles, or on street protests and rebellion, or on seizures of political power that is put into students. Instead it is one that centers on a quest for identity and that argues for the liberating power of information and research and facts. It could be the idea of changing policy through social science, or changing the professions by entering them. The goal, too, has changed. It is not simply increased Chicano rights, but broader ideas of diversity and women's liberation—important, of course, but not always central to understanding Chicano history.
I was reminded of all this by a recently published book by Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a young scholar from UCLA. One can see these these things in Migra!, a history of the Border Patrol, as politically fraught a topic as one can imagine. The book contains an impressive amount of research. She finds some interesting subtleties in this history, such as how the Bracero program, by pushing male labor into certain channels, forced women and children into increasingly penalized and dangerous crossings. But sometimes her attempt to find complexities in this history comes off simply as reading modern academic concerns—with identity, with “discourses” and with “whiteness”—into a subject that doesn't warrant them.
The book encompasses three periods: first, the Patrol's origins in a strongly anti-immigrant period typified by the National Origins Act of 1924; a second period of running from World War II through the end of the Bracero Program, in which the administration of the Patrol was nationalized and its goals internationalized; and a third period after the Bracero program, in which the uglier parts of the legal system—racial profiling, incarceration, brutal enforcement—came to typify much Patrol work.
The most interesting aspect of Hernandez' research is her access to not only American but Mexican sources as well, including the Archívo Histórico del Instituto Nacional de Migración, where she found that “about four thousand boxes containing an estimated four hundred thousand files had survived the years of disregard in a forgotten and leaky warehouse.” This transnational research is most useful for understanding the period of the Bracero program, when international cooperation was at its highest, making the middle section of Hernandez book by far the most useful. These files also have the potential to provide insight into the breakdown of that cooperation after the program's end, but, while Hernandez deals with this topic a bit, it is not a primary focus of the book.
Hernandez bounces back and forth from this international history into analysis of the many personal stories of Border Patrol agents that she has collected in letters, archives and memoirs. These stories, while frequently interesting in their own right (several would provide great background for a novelist) take away from the historical thrust of the book. She is able to identify a “narrative of democracy and deliverance” permeating correspondence of the 1950s but is less efffective in showing the roots of this narrative, or the reasons it disappeared. When she finds people “fighting for inclusion in the realm of whiteness,” she does little to explain historical forces that propelled the Border Patrol in any direction.
These rhetorical concerns take away from the important aspects of her work. But Migra! is undoubtedly a valuable book, especially as a storehouse of information and as an introduction to a new, international perspective of American immigration. Sections of it will undoubtedly become the foundations of research that will continue to broaden our understanding many years into the future.
I think of it also as a product of the Movement, as silly as that must sound, and not just because of how the university is shaping the legacy of the Movement. It is also the fact that the university, thanks largely to the the struggles and protests of an older generation, has come to provide an important means of professional advancement for Chicanos.
Chicano scholars in academia tend to think of themselves as outsiders in the university. It is true they face difficulties, often including drawn out battles for tenure, but I suspect some of this attitude comes from these professors wanting to think of themselves as insiders among the ordinary folk, among the people they grew up around, most of whom didn't go to college.
But college, whether its community college, graduate school, or even Ivy League, is becoming part of the Chicano experience, and the educational experience is destined to enter our literature and our history soon. The educated Chicano—the Chicana with an MFA or the Chicano PhD—is on its way to becoming another of the stock characters in our community, one that will eventually find a comfortable place next to Chicanos who teach elementary school, who are plumbers or carpenters, Vietnam veterans or farmworkers. We must recognize it and value it as a piece of the tradition, no more, but no less representative, authentic, or complete, as any other.