Circuits and Pathways to Latina/o/x History

David Hernández

A LATINO IN HISTORY?

I do not have a degree in history. All of my degrees are interdisciplinary or discipline-adjacent. I generally chalk this up to being a first-generation college student and the pressure to make the first-time college experience “pay off” in some way. This pressure was self-imposed. I did not receive parental or familial input about my education (nor financial assistance), except maybe to abandon the university and instead to work fulltime like everyone else in the family. 

None of this is to say that I didn’t know what a history major was—I did of course. History was on a limited list of majors that were legible to me. Latino history, on the other hand, as a topic within a major, did not resonate with me. I knew I was Mexican American, but I had never heard of Mexicans in history. At that point, I don’t think I had even seen my last name in print (with the exception of New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez). 

Finding Latina/o/x history was a long and circuitous journey. California public high school and family provided little insight, though years later, I would circle back and reexamine my family history through a Latina/o/x lens. This lens, which I employ today, would be developed in the workplace, bookstores, and Latina/o/x communities as much as it would in the classroom. 

UNDERGRADUATE STUDY: LEARNING HISTORY WITHOUT A MAJOR IN HISTORY

I eventually decided to major in business economics. The “business” part seemed the way to go for a person like me, with a limited academic pedigree—that’s to say a “first-gen” college student, although no one called it that back then, nor was there much in terms of services for “first-gens.” Business economics seemed like a nod to the future, in “business.” 

I was fortunate, however, to have a wide variety of requirements at my university, which would become some of my favorite and most memorable courses: anthropology, modern dance, human sexuality, and physics, with a book humorously entitled Physics for Poets. The seed leading to the study of history was the requirement to take two courses of a three-part series on “western civilization.” I took all three. In the last term, I took my one and only Chicano studies course—the field in which I would eventually find a home—which was taught by a historian. 

Admittedly, these aren’t the ideal building blocks from which to construct a Latino historian, nor any sort of academic really. I had a smattering of courses, few skills, and a degree in a major that I didn’t care for. Post-graduation, I would work in the same sort of jobs that I worked at in college—pizza parlors, Kinko’s, and then hotel work.

THE GAP YEAR(S)

Luckily, I had actual history on my side. After a couple of years working in my college town after graduation, I moved to San Francisco. The city offered three key features pointing me toward Latina/o/x history—a catalyzing political event (or two) steeped in historical memory, a vibrant Latina/o/x artistic scene in the Mission District where I lived, and pre-dot-com labor, first in hotels and then in the Latina/o/x nonprofit sector. 

The city was exiting a recession in 1991 when I arrived, and was also on the eve of a major and notorious anniversary. The coming year 1992 marked the quincentenary of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, and San Francisco was a hotbed of activity. Between my arrival in 1991 and October 1992, I became politicized by the magnitude of public debate, book and poetry readings throughout the city and east bay, and community activism surrounding the 500-year benchmark. 

Equally impactful, in April 1992, while working as a front desk clerk at a swanky hotel off Union Square, I witnessed the northern flotsam of the Los Angeles rebellion following the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat motorist Rodney King. San Francisco was in a city-wide curfew as a result, and I would be forced to work a double shift and spend the night in the luxury hotel. When protesters from Union Square shattered the front glass of the hotel, management chained the doors shut. More appallingly, in a management ploy that I will never forget, the hotel served champagne to all the five-star guests in the gilded lobby.

Service work, especially to elites, was already unpleasant—and I saw literal pearl-clutching the night of the uprising—but I knew I had to try something else. After a year-long effort, and dovetailing with my growing political consciousness, I landed my first non-service job in the Latina/o/x nonprofit sector, which deeply impacted my knowledge of the community’s agenda toward social justice. Years later, when I retraced my steps through the Rodney King uprising in the seminar room, I would learn from historian George Sanchez that the Immigration and Naturalization Service took the opportunity sweep up undocumented migrants in the chaotic and deadly police response to the rebellion in Los Angeles.[1] The racial hierarchy that was largely understood in black and white terms, I would learn, was infinitely more complicated and impacted by other nonwhite populations and multiple axes of difference, including citizenship status. 

GRADUATE SCHOOL: FINDING LATINA/O/X VOICES

These beyond-the-classroom experiences opened a pathway to more serious academic queries and a desire to attend graduate school some five years after I had graduated. I pursued a graduate degree in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. With this foundation, I found Latino history mostly through a series of interdisciplinary questions and encounters, shifting to an exploration of Latino identity and voices on the subject of migration. This led to more historically-based questions involving global migration, initially focused on Latina/o/x migrants, and later, to a focused examination of migration enforcement and immigrant detention.  

My first interest was Latina/o/x voices on immigration in the then-unfolding period of the middle 1990s. The era was characterized as a period of “new nativism,”[2] which produced state and federal legislation—later, viewed as historic—that altered migration debate and migration enforcement for decades. For example, Proposition 187 in California, denying nearly all public services to undocumented migrants, passed by popular vote in 1994, only to be gutted by the courts for interfering with federal jurisdiction over migration. Nonetheless, the proposition’s passage was a damaging shot across the bow of immigrants as well as Latinas/os/xes—think of Trump’s “bad hombres” today. At the federal level, in 1996 congress passed a trio of laws that were signed by president Bill Clinton, a Democrat, that would deny migrants benefits and cause a sea change in immigration enforcement, bloating the detention and deportation systems by the end of the decade and spawning a growth in the enforcement infrastructure that is still ongoing—the very system I would devote my career to understanding.

As far as major pundits were concerned, immigration was a policy area driven by Latin American migration. The debate was flush with alarmist and racist depictions about Latina/o/x migrants and non-migrants, but there was scant attention paid to Latina/o/x voices. According to Juan José Gutiérrez of the service agency One Stop Immigration in Los Angeles, “We do have leaders of tremendous stature—they’re just not recognized by the media.”[3] I chose to explore this contemporary vacuum in a political science course on migration. My paper, “Divided We Stand, United We Fall: Latinos and Immigration Policy,”[4] set me on a course of researching migration matters. 

This examination taught me many things, in particular about the heterogeneity of Latina/o/x voices and the multiple fissures among these actors, especially in the area of political strategy. I explored four categories of political actors—(1) nationally elected leaders represented by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, (2) major Latina/o/x nonprofits including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the United Farm Workers (UFW), (3) grassroots activists at smaller organizations, and (4) cultural producers including writers, satirists, and performance artists. 

The divisions among Latina/o/x actors, in a vexed political context, made a national Latina/o/x voice impossible and divide-and-conquer relatively simple. Hoping to limit the damage being caused by xenophobic political forces, Latina/o/x politicians and major nonprofit leaders openly traded the rights of undocumented migrants—without consideration of their deep ties to the community—to protect lawful migration. Similarly, rapid increases in border militarization continued unabated by mainstream Latina/o/x actors even though two thirds of the U.S. population reside within the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol. 

Grassroots activists and small nonprofit leaders, also a heterogenous confluence of voices, utilized coalitional political strategies to fight for a broader spectrum of the Latina/o/x community, regardless of citizenship status and in contrast to mainstream elites. The elitist hierarchies and fissures among Latina/o/x actors were on full display in 1996 at the Latino March on Washington on October 12. The event, often forgotten historically, was organized by grassroots activists over two years and at the height of nativism in the 1990s. 

The “Coordinadora 96” organizing effort was largely ignored by the media and Hispanic elites, but in contrast was endorsed by over 1,200 grassroots organizations. The march brought thirty to forty-five thousand activists, organizers, union members, students, and community members—I personally chaperoned a group of several dozen high school students from New Mexico. The group marched two miles from Malcolm X Park in Columbia Heights to the Ellipse—most recently, the site of Donald Trump’s January 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally. The central themes were immigrants’ and workers’ rights, affirmative action, and police abuse. 

La marcha Latina exposed internal political tensions between Latina/o/x activists and Hispanic elites. It was viewed as too confrontational by elites, although many of these same nonprofit leaders and politicians joined the rally at the last possible moment on the day of the event. The Latino March’s symbolism—held on día de la raza recognized throughout the Americas—and expressions of empowerment and pride were less of a political awakening than the culmination of historic activism within the Latina/o/x community. In fact, the Latino March on Washington would serve as a prototype, including its stealth grassroots organizing, to the ‘mega marches’ in 2006, held in cities nationally against punitive immigration legislation.

DOCTORAL STUDY: RACE AND MIGRATION

With a master’s degree in American Studies in hand, I moved on to UC Berkeley to pursue my doctorate in an additional interdisciplinary program, Comparative Ethnic Studies. I didn’t have a specific project in mind, but I knew I wanted to explore the intersection of race and migration. In ethnic studies, we often speak about two major typologies of difference, sometimes called lightheartedly the ‘four food groups.’ These are demographic forms of nonwhiteness—African Americans, Asian Americans, Indigenous peoples, and Latinas/os/xes—and various axes of difference—race, class, gender, and sexuality. My hope was to add nonwhite immigrants and citizenship status to these two frameworks. 

To do so, I chose to examine an historical period of social activism in the 1960s and 1970s called the Chicana/o/x movement and explore where immigration/immigrants fit, or did not fit, into this period. Or, in which ways were migrants pro- or anti-movement and movement activists pro- or anti-immigrant? I interviewed five Chicana/o/x activists and placed their memories against the still-expanding historical record of this period. I considered the two frameworks of difference above and utilized a comparative social movement, the Asian American movement, and its intersections with migration politics. Much like researching nativism in the 1990s in the United States, exploring the period of the new social movements was enlightening and eventually steered me toward my next interdisciplinary query about immigration enforcement. 

In addition to utilizing historical and comparative analyses, archival research, and qualitative interviews, the study illustrated what historian David Gutiérrez calls the “tradition of misunderstanding” between Latina/o/x immigrants and their U.S.-born counterparts,[5] groups that are often conflated in the mainstream as a single undifferentiated population. Citizenship status served as a point unity as well as division and was also complicated by country of origin, levels of assimilation, socioeconomic class, union membership, language, etcetera. This heterogeneity was reflected in the complexity of organizations making up the Movement as a whole. 

The project highlighted the divergence between symbolic unity, such as supporting migrant farmworkers or cultural reverence for Mexico and/or indigenous roots, and political agendas that prioritized the advancement and protection of U.S. citizens over migrant counterparts. According to many of the interviewees, calls for unity and solidarity carried multiple edges, sometimes conjoining or recognizing the historic and familial affinities between U.S.-born Latinas/os/xes and migrants, but also erasing traditional divisions. Overall, examining migration politics and social movements at a major historical inflection point bore many lessons about the past and future, and demonstrated the value of historical genealogy in the study of Latina/o/x migration.

IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT: THE LONG VIEW

Just as my time in San Francisco coincided with quincentenary of Columbus’s encroachment on the Americas, my time at UC Berkeley coincided with the development of the anti-carceral prison abolition movement Critical Resistance, largely within ethnic studies. Similar to my examination of the historical period of the Chicana/o/x movement, I wondered where immigrants and immigration fit into analyses of the prison industrial complex. Or more specifically, what can be learned from an historical examination of immigrant incarceration?

The prison industrial complex, in size and scope, casts a long shadow, and my impression was that migrant detention was discussed in passing and not deeply explored. Immigrant detention, as a form of immigration enforcement, was a puzzle. I had to teach myself new things. There were historical foundations and proto-foundations, disjointed histories and trends, and unequal treatment of migrant populations based on race, gender, and sexuality. Occasionally, I benefited from archival serendipity. 

What I thought was a dearth of knowledge of incarcerated migrants was far more complicated. The criminalization of migrants over the previous 120 years had solidified and was primarily focused on the presumed criminality and “illegality” of migrants and Latina/o/x people. Whereas this had direct parallels to the stigma of criminality placed variously on all racialized subjects in the United States, the carceral system for migrants was wholly separate, in a legal sense, from the prison system, guided by different laws, principles, and administrative and punitive flexibility. These unique features were established over time, dating back to the 1890s, initially focused on Asian migrants, and applied through successive racialized groups. 

I also discovered that the racial trajectory of migrant detention is often severed by frameworks of crisis—treating episodes of detention expansion as individual and temporary national security crises, as opposed to deeply grooved patterns of mistreatment. Whereas certain rights and benefits were afforded to greater groups of migrants—for example, immigration statutes were slowly made race-neutral, especially for naturalization and lawful entry—the administrative enforcement of age-old legal authorities became stronger over time, entrenching racialized inequality through administrative practices, from detention guards up to the Attorney General. Today, for example, well over 90% of migrants apprehended, detained, and deported are of Latin American origin. The longer historical view of the detention regime allows us to see the consolidation of power under the shadow of civil rights gains and codified race neutrality. 

TOWARD LATINA/O/X HISTORY

My route to and through Latina/o/x historical research was many things: disjointed, circuitous, replete with barriers, but also a process of self-examination, personally empowering, and at times depressing. It’s a long way from studying business economics to researching the detention and deportation regimes—but even these intellectual developments are entangled as well. The privatization and profiteering from migrant detention and other enforcement technologies, for example, have a long history, and my interdisciplinary background helped me understand this feature of carceral studies. Similarly, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the long view of detention history reminds us that the nation’s moral arc doesn’t always “bend toward justice.” There are forms of relief from deportation, such as statutes of limitation on forced removal, that were viewed as common sense one hundred years ago, thus protecting almost all long-term residents from removal. Today, it’s the opposite—a noncitizen can be deported at any point in their residency. 

My final recollection about detention history comes from a colleague in the STEM fields. She once asked me, “Don’t you love your research?” She was enthusiastic, implying how she’d answer the question about her work in neuroscience and speech. Where she had a simple answer, mine has always been fraught. “My work is a little depressing,” I remember saying. Because I research, teach, and write about histories of immigration enforcement, specifically about migrants detained and teetering on deportation, it’s challenging and burdensome. I don’t love detention history—How could I?—but I am endlessly curious about how this form of power works, the people it harms, and how to resist it.

Notes

[1]George Sánchez, “Face the Nation: Race, Immigration, and the Rise of Nativism in Late Twentieth Century America.” International Migration Review, 31 (no. 4, 1997), 1009-1030.

[2]Juan Perea, Immigrants Out!: The New Nativism and Anti-Immigrant in the United States (1996).

[3]David Hernaández, “Divided We Stand, United We Fall: Latinos and Immigration Policy,” Perspectives in Mexican American Studies, 6 (1997), 84.

[4]The paper would eventually become a journal article, “Divided We Stand, United We Fall: Latinos and Immigration Policy,” Perspectives in Mexican American Studies, 6 (1997), 80-95.

[5]David Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (1995).