Who Are the Immigrants

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“In time, the experience of the children of immigrants became the experience of all American children, who now were the representatives of a new culture living in a new age.” – Margaret Mead, 1970

When thousands of students first walked out of high schools in Salinas and Watsonville, Calif. – and across the state and the country – to ignite what have become gargantuan protests against anti-immigration legislation, news reporters were primed to dismiss them as brainless teenage truants and troublemakers.

But the exuberance and thoughtful articulations of Latino youth prevailed, drawing from the lessons of their parents’ Chicano-rights “blowouts” in the 1960s. Teens proved devastatingly well-informed about the draconian congressional bills they opposed.

Excited students led reporters to their first-generation parents and grandparents – the backbones of California’s agricultural, domestic service and labor economies – who showed up to support their kids. Teens translated questions for beaming elders.

The scenes were so appealing that even America’s youth-phobic media depicted them positively.

Youth-inspired Latino activism – “hoy marchamos, mañana votamos” (“today we march, tomorrow we vote”) – has spread nationwide. In my hometown of Oklahoma City, which is hardly a hotbed of firebrands, a pro-immigrant rally drew 10,000 people.

These eruptions scare the old establishment, but they are crucial to America’s evolution to a multiracial culture. Societies of rapid social and demographic change favor dynamic young people who are “at home in this time,” Margaret Mead observed, rendering rigid elders “fettered to the past,” anachronistic “immigrants in time.”

Young people harbor distinctly more adaptive values than the old. An Associated Press poll found that two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds of all races supported broad immigrant rights, while most of the older citizens were ambivalent or opposed.

The high proportion of young people in Latin cultures makes teens the center of political activism. They know passivity has not served Latinos well.

Mexican-Americans’ past efforts to quietly assimilate proved disastrous. The “Zoot Suit Riots” of Los Angeles in the 1940s consisted of vicious beatings of young Latinos by mobs of troops egged on by an openly racist press. Police vilified Latino “gangsters,” with officials declaring them to be “descendants of the wild tribes of inner Mexico” with “an inborn desire to kill.”

Determined not to perpetuate docility, tens of thousands of California’s Latino high schoolers called mass strikes in the 1960s – “blowouts” to protest the Vietnam War and education inequities, building a “movimiento” that energized college campuses.

“Lowrider” clubs combined colorful car parades with shrewd legal tactics to thwart efforts in some cities to ban teens from public spaces, beginning with Los Angeles’ notorious 1968 anti-cruising ordinance for Whittier Boulevard.

Today, anti-immigrant extremism is provoking renewed Latino youth activism, which carries epic potential to shake up an America sinking into callousness and social rift. But, one 16-year-old marcher told a reporter, “the public school system teaches us very little” about “how to fight racism the right way.”

What is “the right way”? If Latino youth fulfill their placard manifesto to move from marching to voting, the politics of California and other states will change fast. In the 2005 election, ballot measures to harass teens seeking abortions and to restrict lobbying by labor unions lost only because burgeoning numbers of younger voters overruled older ones.

Over the next dozen years, as California’s older white population stagnates, its number of 16- to 29-year-olds will leap by 20 percent, to 8.5 million. Three-fourths of that growth will be among Latinos, and 12 percent among Asians.

If the self-destructive Democratic Party drops its mindless opposition to the National Youth Rights Association’s campaign to lower the voting age to 16, young constituencies will become even more pivotal.

Growth in youth activism, with Latinos and the rights association standing as the chief models, is crucial to our society’s survival.

Every week brings renewed evidence of aging America’s destructive attacks against the young. Policymakers strip rights and services from youth and inflict pointless repression while piling up huge debts that future generations must repay. Television stations and newspapers blare frenzied anti-youth alarms daily as reporters and the “experts” they quote abandon accuracy and ethics wholesale.

Even the National Research Council (once the gold standard for scholarship) has succumbed to grotesquely anti-scientific hysteria. A 2006 council panel report, “Emerging Issues in the Science of Adolescence,” repackages century-old eugenics nonsense as cutting-edge scholarship. Featuring the University of Pittsburgh’s Ronald Dahl’s ignorant diatribe against “the tinderbox in the teenage brain,” the panel ignored every real-life issue, from poverty, racism and family abuse to the rising recklessness of its own middle-aged cohort, which is far worse than anything adolescents bring.

Whether today’s youth activism develops into a vital counter-force to such backward-looking dogma depends on how firmly the young hold on to their demands that America be a country of inclusion.