Report From Occupied America: Sunday in the Park with Jorge
One of the most overused clichés of
contemporary journalism is that massive Mexican
immigration will make American life more "vibrant".
This is especially true of
Eastern Seaboard pundits, who have typically spent
less time in a
Mexican-American neighborhood in the U.S. than they
vacationing in Mexico.
After all, the plaza at the heart
of an old
colonial Mexican town like
Veracruz can be a
delightful place to while away an evening on
holiday—sitting in a café under the arcade, listening to
brass band play in the park while watching
Unfortunately, outside of perhaps
San Antonio`s Riverwalk tourist zone, this
experience has seldom been replicated in Mexican
neighborhoods in the U.S. They tend to be depressing, if
not downright dismal—not as ominous and nightmarish as
many black neighborhoods, but that`s setting a
rather low standard.
One reason: the incompatibility
between traditional Mexican lifestyles, which center
around going down to the town square and hanging out,
sprawling American cities and suburbs, which seldom
provide central focal points.
Los Angeles notoriously lacks a central place to
gather. There is, indeed,
a tiny old plaza downtown, next to kitschy
Olvera Street. But it is on a
scale appropriate for the dusty pueblo that LA was
before 1848—not for the megalopolis of the 21st Century.
So it is of negligible use.
Accordingly, therefore, Mexicans in
Los Angeles take over public parks to
picnic. For example, at the big Hansen Dam
Recreation Center in the northeast
San Fernando Valley last Sunday afternoon, a couple
of thousand people were assembled. This was no special
occasion, just a normal Sunday.
The crowd was virtually 100%
Latino. Before I arrived with my family, a friendly
African-American guy selling funnel cakes was the sole
Although we are constantly lectured
about the wonders of "diversity," the plain fact
is that Mexicans seem to prefer ethnic homogeneity and
monoculturalism. Indeed, the scene was identical to ones
taking place a
thousand miles to the south. And the picnickers
couldn`t be happier about that.
American-style parks aren`t
designed for Mexican tastes. Ours tend to have too many
open lawns and not enough trees. Mexicans
discriminate against folks, which means nobody wants
to tan. So everybody at Hansen Dam crowded together in
the shade of the bordering trees, even though the
temperature was only in the 80s.
Still, for all their American
deficiencies, parks are the best gathering places
available to Mexicans in LA.
Neoconservative commentators frequent assume that
Mexican immigrants will automatically assimilate into
American culture because our way of life is just so much
more wonderful. In reality, however, Mexican culture is
mature, stable, deeply-rooted, and highly appealing to
Granted, it`s not very effective at producing the kinds
of things that, say,
Ben Franklin most valued—such as
technological inventiveness; a love of the printed
civic cooperativeness; and an optimal mix of
liberty, order, and equality.
But Mexicans have different values,
which their culture caters to.
The Mexican intellectual
Jorge Castaneda, who served as
Foreign Secretary under Vicente Fox, delineated the
disparity in values between American and Mexican
cultures in a 1995 Atlantic Monthly essay with
the apt title "Ferocious
Differences". For example, according to
Castaneda, Americans tend to focus upon the future,
while Mexicans live for today and dwell mentally in the
past. Hence the
Mexican-American War of the 1840s
matters a lot more to Mexicans than to
The idea that Mexican immigrants
will gladly give up Mexican culture wouldn`t make much
sense to the people in Hansen Dam Park. They were having
a lot more fun than gringos would have.
About a dozen small bands were
mariachi music, creating a festive (if clashing)
sound track. Horseback riders wove in and out. Vendors
sold South-of-the-Border specialties such as watermelon
chunks covered with hot sauce.
I`m not even talking about
immigration laws, but about the kind of
environment rules that are the pride of American
liberalism. In contrast,
Fred Reed, the curmudgeonly columnist who recently
moved to Mexico because America has gotten too
regulated for his rugged individualist tastes,
would have had a great time.
One of the conundrums of modern politics is that lax
immigration enforcement is importing a vast class of
people who hold many of the proudest accomplishments of
the modern American liberals—who (theoretically) welcome
them —in contempt…on those rare occasions when the
illegal immigrants even notice them. Mexicans bring with
macho culture. It has its strengths and
weaknesses, but the strengths aren`t anything that
liberals admire when found in
Most white progressives resolve
this tension by simply refusing to pay attention to
reality, while mouthing cant phrases like "Diversity
adds so much magic to our lives."
Certainly, no white liberals were
on hand at Hansen Dam.
So, say you`re sitting around in
the park with your brand new
cowboy hat on, pounding back
a few cervezas, and it occurs to you that,
since you have got the hat, you should get the
horse to go with it. What could make more sense than
going for a horseback ride through a crowded park full
of little kids?
Well, at Hansen Dam, you`re in
In the American part of America, renting a horse has
expensive and time-consuming because liability
insurance is so steep. Riding is
dangerous, as the sad examples of
Christopher Reeve and
Cole Porter attest.
But at Hansen Dam on weekends,
there are horse-owners around everywhere who will rent
you a horse, few questions asked. They don`t have signs
advertising their business because what they are doing
illegal. So you have to ask. (In
Spanish, of course.)
If one of the many small children
about happens to stumble under the hooves of your mount
and get trampled, well, that`s tragic. But who could
have foreseen such bad luck?
About 50 feet from where we were
sitting, two young men started punching each other as
hard as their state of
inebriation would allow. Their friends swarmed in
and separated them, trying to get the
hotheads to calm down. But every few minutes, one
would slip free from the restraining hands and attack
his rival again.
This was quite entertaining. But
the fourth time the fight flared up, I got concerned
somebody might pull out a gun.
So, we took off, gingerly dodging
drunk drivers in the parking lot.
Sunday at Hansen Dam Park is
reminiscent of the charming and depressing Mexican
fatalism that are a major theme in Stones for Ibarra, a
minor classic of an autobiographical novel written by a
starchy, logical-minded San Francisco lady named
Harriet Doerr (played, appropriately enough, by
Glenn Close in the
1988 movie version).
Around 1960, Doerr and her husband
moved to a small Mexican village named Ibarra, where her
husband had inherited a copper mine that an American
ancestor had abandoned during the
The American couple was invited to
the village`s frequent fiestas, where a good time was
had by all until, routinely, one of the partiers would
lose an eye or a limb in a
fireworks accident or
brawl. Each year, the same celebrations would roll
around again. And the same sort of catastrophes would
re-occur, like clockwork.
The book`s title refers to the
small piles of stones that commemorate where somebody
There are many such stone memorials
"The ground is
hypodermic needles, plastic garbage bags, diapers and
soda cans. Human and dog excrement attracts flies in
hardening piles. … The blackened vegetation suggests
that someone built a fire that later raged out of
control. … Hansen Dam also suffers illegal incursions by
The environmental damage can be
serious. Shteir notes:
May 13 brush fire at Hansen Dam… which almost
certainly had human origins, destroyed 80 acres of
willow forest, including the territories of four
least Bell`s vireos." [Park
misuse hurts beauty and beasts, June 13, 2007]
Shteir, clearly a gringo killjoy, points out:
"We need to increase
resource-management efforts and law enforcement
lack of law enforcement is the sine qua non
of a Mexican day of fun in the sun.
I shouldn`t have to. That`s what
separate countries is for.