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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 have 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 the brass band play in the park while watching pedestrians promenade.
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, and sprawling American cities and suburbs, which seldom provide central focal points.
For example, 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 non-Hispanic.
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 scientific progress; technological inventiveness; a love of the printed word; 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 Americans.
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 blaring 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 them a macho culture. It has its strengths and weaknesses, but the strengths aren't anything that liberals admire when found in white Americans.
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 gotten 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 is 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 that eventually somebody might pull out a gun.
So, we took off, gingerly dodging the drunk drivers in the parking lot.
Sunday at Hansen Dam Park is reminiscent of the charming and depressing Mexican imprudence and 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 Mexican Revolution.
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 was killed.
There are many such stone memorials in Ibarra.
"The ground is littered with 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 all-terrain vehicles."
The environmental damage can be serious. Shteir notes:
"The May 13 brush fire at Hansen Dam… which almost certainly had human origins, destroyed 80 acres of willow forest, including the territories of four endangered 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 patrols."
But a 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 having separate countries is for.