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Eden Torres: Politics of Friendship

The way that political candidates have suddenly become the Hispanic voter’s best friend while also decrying the lack of controls over undocumented immigration reminds me of the irony and earnestness contained in the US Good Neighbor Policy of 1933-1945. While politicians embarked on a public relations campaign to promote an official government policy of friendliness and partnership with our neighbors in Latin America, anti-immigrant hostility toward Mexicans was at a fever pitch in large cities around the nation. It became especially violent in Los Angeles during the WWII and culminated in what would become known in the popular press as the “Zoot Suit Riots.? Many scholars, however, have come to characterize these incidents as the wholesale beating of Mexican American youth by white military personnel coupled with the spectacular denial of equal protection and due process under the justice system. But the fact that these two things–an official policy of friendship and violent anti-immigrant hostility–existed simultaneously in our history is important to note. Surely there are lessons to be gleaned from looking at such patterns.

Of course the Good Neighbor Policy was conceived of as a way of bringing Latin American countries under US control without using military means to do so. It was a philosophical venture ostensibly created to promote democracy. It’s real purpose though was to preserve US economic dominance and the agricultural-export model of development. Though the US was reluctant to send in its own forces whenever someone rebelled, it was not above supporting corrupt and morally reprehensible leaders, armies and police forces throughout Latin America to maintain business interests. This strategy has had a history of enriching the lives of select Latin Americans while forcing the majority into starvation and migration. (In that way it resembles other equally predatory policies like it, including NAFTA and CAFTA.)

Despite the ultimate nightmare of this policy, something President Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his inaugural address as he ushered in the policy still makes sense, and should be repeated. “I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor–the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.?

What would the US attitude toward Mexicans immigrants (whatever their status) be if we thought of them as our neighbors, as people connected to us who have the same rights that we expect for ourselves? At a bare minimum, wouldn’t we make more of effort to understand why they are leaving their homes? Wouldn’t we be sympathetic to their need and try to help them either live a more comfortable existence in their own “homes? or at least make them comfortable in ours? Don’t we respect ourselves enough to afford people that dignity?
It seems so little to ask that all human beings should have the right to shelter, food, and clothing. Universal human rights accords also include such things as the freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial, and the right not to be tortured. I might add the right to a job, medical care and education. I suppose that one of the reasons some people in the US will continue to view Mexican migrants with hostility is because they’ve become convinced that a Mexican presence somehow detracts from the life they feel they’ve been promised as US citizens–a life that has too often eluded them. They fail to realize that the same forces that keep this promised life out of reach for many US citizens are also pushing immigrants from their homes and propelling them into the US–outsourcing, anti-unionism, predatory banking practices, global corporations with no loyalty to any nation and seemingly no conscience about how much local destruction occurs in the creation of obscene wealth for the few at the top.

When I hear no less than Dwight D. Eisenhower–an army general and a Republican president–warning the American people about the dangers of the “military industrial complex,? and realize that his greatest fears have come true in our lifetimes, it seems clear that our way out of this mess must be one without allegiances to or rejection of any one political party. It also seems clear that Mexicans, undocumented or otherwise, are not to blame for our current economic situation and the failures of the American Dream for so many people. Antonio Portia, a Brazilian writer, once said, “if you do not look up, you will think that you are the highest point.? Looking down on Mexicans from a position of superiority might convince you that you are indeed, superior. But if you raise your eyes, you might begin to understand that from the highest point you actually look a lot like those people who are coming across the border just to survive–a lot more like their neighbors than you are to CEO’s making millions and literally controlling the globe.

Eden Torres is the chair of the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota.


As an anglo struggling with the complexities of the subjunctive in the spanish language, I have a new found respect for the hispanic peoples.

I would welcome a more enlightened and humane immigration policy. If I were a Central American or Mexican struggling to feed my family I would be doing the exact same thing as the undocumented workers in the U.S.

I hope that we adopt a guest worker program and amnesty for all undocumented workers in this country.

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