The Most Modern People in the World


Illegal immigration is the price we pay for erecting Coca-Cola billboards all over the world. In Manila as in Lima, America puts up huge self-advertisements.

We advertise our beauty and our sexy glamour; we display our happy white teeth -- DRINK COKE.

Today, many Californians are going to vote for Proposition 187, hoping to put an end to illegal immigration by denying government services to illegal immigrants and to their children. American politicians warn that "the illegals" are coming for our welfare dollars. What kids on the Mexican side of the border will tell you is that they are coming in search of a job. They do not quote Thomas Jefferson, nor do they know the Bill of Rights. There is only a rumor of work . . .

Illegals are an embarrassment to Mexico's government. They are an outrage to suburbanites in San Diego who each night see the Third World running through their rose garden. Illegals are people "without papers." They are often adolescent, they are often desperate, reckless, they are disrespectful of American custom and law. They are also among the most modern people in the world.

Decades before wealthy Mexicans decided to enroll in U.S. Ivy League colleges, Mexican peasants trespassed across several centuries, grew accustomed to thousands of miles of dirt roads and freeways, knew two currencies, and gathered a "working knowledge" of English to go along with their Spanish. Before professors in business schools were talking about global economics, the illegal knew all about it. Before fax machines punctured the Iron Curtain, "coyotes" knew the most efficient way to infiltrate Southern California. Before businessmen flew into Mexico City to sign big deals, the illegal was picking peaches in the fields of California or flipping pancakes at the roadside diner.

Let's face it: America has never really liked immigrants, at least not initially. We ended up romanticizing the 19th-century immigrant, but only after generations. Today, Americans insist that they are not anti- immigrant. "It's just the illegals we don't want."

In 1994, because we have illegal immigrants to complain about, we can say about them exactly what nativists a century ago said about the Ellis Island crowd: "They don't assimilate; they're too foreign; they come to take, not to give; they are peasants who lower our national I.Q."

The notion of the "legal immigrant" allows us to forget that all immigrants are outlaws. Immigrants violate custom, they assault convention. To be an immigrant is to turn your back on your father and your village. You break your mother's heart. The immigrant is as much a scandal to his ancient mountain village as to suburban Los Angeles.

Early in this century, Mexico passed laws to keep U.S. business interests out. Lately, Mexico's president Carlos Salinas de Gortari has begun to denationalize Mexican business and open his country to U.S. capital. Americans exclaim, "At last, Mexico has a truly modern leader!" But the Harvard-educated president of Mexico was preceded to the U.S. by several generations of peasants.

In the 1920s, when Mexico was trying to seal itself off from the U.S., Mexican peasants were illegally making their way north. Every few months, illegal workers would return, by choice or by deportation. They returned to their 16th-century villages with seductive rumors of America. More than Pancho Villa, more than Zapata, the illegal immigrants became the great revolutionaries of Mexico. They Americanized the tiniest villages of Mexico.

Today, the jet airplane makes the world convenient to U.S. business executives and to middle-class tourists. We Americans assume our ability to roam where we will, making deals or taking pictures of each other in Bermuda shorts. A Californian I know complains that a village in Ecuador is becoming more and more Americanized. Each year, he sees the change. I tell him, if he's so worried about the change then maybe he shouldn't travel so much.

We Americans have become like Shakespeare's coy mistress, the Dark Lady of the sonnets. We stand at the window, we bat our eyelashes. We romance the world. And then we wonder why the world is lined up at our door.

Whatever Californians decide about Proposition 187, Californians will not in the end decide illegal immigration. For the fact is that we all live in a world where economies overlap, where we no longer know where our automobiles are assembled, where billboards work their way into the adolescent imagination. We are headed for a century where the great question will be exactly this: What is a border?

The illegal immigrant is the bravest among us. The most modern among us. The prophet.

"The Border, senor . . . ?" the illegal immigrant sighs. The border is an inconvenience. A danger in the dark. But the border does not hold. The peasant knows the reality of our world, decades before the California suburbanite will get the point.

Richard Rodriguez, the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking-Penguin), wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.


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