About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mountain West Hispanics: Class... and Race.

In 2009 Stephen Harwood thought he had the perfect scapegoat. On their way to Montana from Yakima, Harwood was shot and his girlfriend murdered by, he claimed at the time, a "hispanic hitch hiker." However, in the ensuing investigation police realized his tale didn't quite hold water, and it turns out Harwood was the killer.

Tales of racial scapegoating in the United States are nothing new. In the American south and northeast blame has been laid on generic Puerto Rican, African American, and generally Afro-Caribbean immigrants for decades if not centuries. The southwest is no stranger to the imagined Hispanic killer trope, for sure. But the pacific north west and mountain west? I think we have here one example of the clear convergence of three factors: Mexico's image in the media and the associated political hysteria, increased migration to the northwest, and urban legend.

As the number of Hispanics in the northwest continues to grow (faster in Washington and Idaho than in Montana), the sensational hysteria of political media seems to be influencing perceptions of Hispanics in the area. As a teen, I recall migrant sugar beet pickers, cherry pickers, and potato pickers being seen as hard working individuals that made agricultural life affordable. Between we teenagers and migrant workers, farmers in Montana were able to keep labor costs low in a profession that has a 10% or less profit margin. By contrast, a recent Bozeman Chronicle article hints that things are changing.

Millions of immigrants are "changing the character of this country," said Paul Nachman, a Bozeman retired physicist and one of the most outspoken critics of migration in Gallatin County. "We are importing an underclass, importing poverty."

In California, where he lived for nine years, Nachman said illegal immigrants are a great burden on the state budget, schools, prisons, welfare system and emergency rooms. They have created large enclaves where Spanish is the main language. Many more jobs would be available, he said, if they went home.

I don't mean to say you could not find overt racism in the northwest - try being Native American in Spokane or Billings. But I do mean to say that increased migration has increased the problem - and I don't mean Hispanics, I mean folks from places with large Hispanic populations that come with discriminatory baggage in place (like Nachman). For example, see the current Christian Exodus movement. At any rate, it makes it possible - and I would add more frequent - for people to lay down ideas like the western tale of the killer hitchhiker on top of the tale of the violent Latina/o. Urban legend meets political hysteria.

And finally, the thing that really stood out for me from Nachman's comment was his shot at the "underclass" in his comment. Montana has the 17th highest poverty rate in the United States, and comments like Nachman's reek of the sort of elitist class divisions that can and do split the state. But I would also point out that it is easy for Nachman to ease into this division, not only coming from California, but also going to Montana. As I mentioned, discrimination against Native Americans in the state and region is at intolerable levels, and I should also add (no surprise to historians, economists and anthropologists) that Montana's reservations see 20% or higher poverty.

In the end, I would like to think that westerners are better than the sort of discrimination in both class and race we see in such pronounced ways in the south or east, but I think patterns established with Native Americans reveal that it is just not going to be the case - but I don't think it has to be the case. Certainly, I think there needs to be far greater outreach to Hispanics in states like Montana as well as to the Anglo population so that westerns can do what they do best - adjust and change. And frankly, considering the outward migration of the sons and daughters of the west's farmers, Hispanics may be the demographic future of the survival of agriculture in the west.

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