By Louis Mendoza, Department of Chicano Studies, University of Minnesota
In the 13 weeks I have been on the road thus far I have had some profoundly inspiring encounters with people, nature, and my own potential and limitations even as I have also been confronted with Jim Crow experiences in renting motel rooms and campsites.
I have indeed been blessed to meet people from all walks of life—farm workers in the fields of Northern California, organizers in Eugene Oregon, Nampa and Boise, Idaho, and Worthington, Minnesota. I have spoken with students, retirees, cabdrivers, restaurant workers, entrepreneurs in small towns of the Midwest and Northeast, a state trooper in Wyoming who gave me a ride when my bike broke down. Included in this group are people who gave me rides when I needed help, including two young carefree hippies and a Mormon family returning to Idaho from a family reunion in California. Each of them has taught me something as we talked about the state of the country—of the prevailing dis-ease that lingers in our national body. I spoke with a Mexican immigrant worker in Leimington, Ontario who compared his experience as an undocumented worker in the US South where he felt he had to constantly be on the watch for immigrant authorities and hostile locals to being a welcomed participant in a government sponsored immigrant worker program in Canada.
What I have learned through their profound example is something I already knew yet had not fully integrated with experience, and that is that we are in this together. That is, that our destinies are intertwined. Despite the dramatic media characterizations of an ongoing cultural, social, and political battle, I believe that on the ground level most people aren’t invested in maintaining this war, nor do they live their lives in fear of change. This is not to say that fear and ignorance don’t exist and don’t drive the creation of absurd policies, such as the local ordinances that would outlaw the hiring or renting property to undocumented immigrants. Nor am I blind to the fact that the people I meet may be a self-selecting population of more tolerant or progressive folks because anti-Latino hate mongers don’t go out of their way to speak with me, but too much experiential, anecdotal, and data based evidence exists to deny the facts that change is indeed occurring.
From the many Latinos I met who are active agents in change, I heard about victories, about successes in building allies across terrains of struggle, about the emergence of a critical mass of activists struggling to counter conservative politicians. From many small town residents I’ve seen and heard about how the industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit of new immigrants has saved the local economy. In a strange irony, it is the new immigrants who have made it possible for white elders of these communities to maintain their way of life even as the local culture is undergoing a profound cultural shift.
My journey is only half complete, and I cannot assume as I head to through the south that what has been true of the Northwest, Midwest, and Northeast will hold true in the new geography of Latino immigration, but I believe that the immigrants of today are extraordinarily aware of their human rights and are prepared to defend and advocate on behalf of their community as needed even as they maintain a strong sense of their continental American identity.
I invite you to join me on this adventure by following updates of my ride that I am maintaining on a blog: http://journeyacrossouramerica.blogspot.com/. Here you can read more detail about my encounters and challenges.