Cinco de Mayo is upon us again, a time to eat chips and salsa, and for some, a great excuse to drink Mexican beer.
It is not, as most Americans think, Mexico’s independence day, but rather the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, where Mexico defeated the French forces supporting “emperor” Maximilian in 1862.
However, it is a holiday that is celebrated much more widely in the United States than in Mexico because the commander of the Mexican forces, Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, was a Tejano—he was born in Goliad, Texas.
Previously celebrated only in the Southwest, Cinco de Mayo has become the Latino holiday in the United States, and it’s gaining currency throughout society—all the way up to the White House with its Cinco de Mayo fiesta in the Rose Garden. The obvious reason is that as the Latino community has grown and expanded throughout the country, the culture and the people are ceasing to be “exotic” and have increasingly become part of everyday life.
But the way to this new normality is uneven because so many members of this community are relatively recent immigrants. The process of integrating them into American society is fraught with a great deal of cultural fear, even while there is recognition that they are an economic asset.
These fears explain why as a nation we act as if the growth of this community is not a permanent state of affairs. On one hand, we send out a strong message of not wanting these immigrants to stay by denying them such basic services as licenses to drive and making it difficult for their children to pursue higher education. And on the other hand, many express the opinion that these immigrants obviously do not want to learn English or integrate into broader society, as did previous waves of immigrants, because of the proximity to their homeland.
And yet immigrants are of obvious value to our country. Businesses widely recognize that they take the jobs most Americans would not want. It is because of these immigrants that the U.S. economy is not facing the severe depopulation pressures of Europe and Japan. And, according to recent press reports, the vast majority of immigrants pay taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, and receive very few services in return.
The result of our conflicting views on immigrants is increased border control with lax employment enforcement. An unintended consequence of this dichotomy is that where previously Latino workers returned to their homelands after a few months of employment, the danger and the costs associated with crossing the border have increased so much that rather than risk multiple crossings, whole families are now moving here. And as families relocate, many more children are being born and raised in the United States—making an eventual return highly unlikely.
It is now said to the point of cliche that our immigration system is broken. So by all means, let’s recognize reality and move quickly toward fixing it in as rational and humane a way as we can. Although this obviously is a complicated issue, we should keep in mind the millions of children of immigrants, both American and foreign-born, and what a significant portion of our workforce (and our retirement) they represent.
A good place to start would be by moving forward on the Dream Act, legislation stalled in Congress that would offer permanent resident status to qualifying undocumented students, making them eligible for financial aid.
Assuring the smooth integration into society of undocumented children who came here without being asked, and who by virtue of their upbringing now identify themselves as American, will be an investment we could never regret.
Cinco de Mayo, then, is a good time to reflect on the Latino community and what it means to this country. As Gen. Zaragoza’s Texas roots demonstrate, the Latino presence is an essential part of U.S. history. Latinos have been a part of North America since before the arrival of the first English colonists, and the original Latinos in the United States did not need to immigrate, they were migrated when the U.S. absorbed half of Mexico as a result of the U.S.-Mexican War, which ended in 1848. However, because of the migration wave of the 1980s and 1990s, there now are millions of people in this country who are living in the shadows, but who are here to stay. They are an essential part of the economic fabric of this country and more important, they are the parents of Americans.
In the inexorable way of life, familiarity between Latinos and mainstream U.S. society will not breed contempt, it will breed babies. I can easily imagine a time when Cinco de Mayo will become just like St. Patrick’s Day, parades, beer and all—a day when “everybody is Latino”—because so many of us will be able to count a Latino forebear or three somewhere in the family tree.
The issue for us now is whether our descendants will be better off because we had the foresight to make certain that we took the appropriate steps to allow the efficient integration of these newcomers into the American family.
Allert Brown-Gort, is associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies and a fellow at the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.