The Mexican National Museum of Popular Culture (located in Mexico City) carries various exhibits that detail the history of Mexico and capture themes important in present-day Mexican society. The current exhibit focuses on immigration; it shows the history of migration and immigration in Mexico through numerous murals, writings, videos and other art forms. The exhibit, which is very beautiful and informative, comes at a very appropriate time. Although most Mexicans—especially the politicians—are acutely aware of the immigration issue, most Americans are relatively unaware, or even more commonly, misinformed about it.
Since NAFTA entered into effect in 1994—the anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico (a response to the spread of neoliberalism)—it is estimated that over a million farmers have been displaced. Some have been forced into urban areas, while many others have been forced to immigrate to the United States. The vast majority of Mexicans who immigrate to the United States do so without the proper documents. This has caused a major social and political quandary. The U.S. immigration system—deemed “broken” by many—has been unable to deal with the influx of immigrants from Mexico. Hence, “illegal” immigration continues—a fact that has produced a variety of responses, many of which are very xenophobic. The vigilantes who call themselves the Minutemen have made it their business to harass immigrants in the U.S. and propagate racist political ideas. Police in some areas have recently been given the authority to enforce immigration law—which has led to racial profiling. Conservative politicians have called for harsher legal penalties for undocumented immigrants who are apprehended. The government has fortified the Mexican – U.S. border by adding more border patrol agents, and recently there has been talk of constructing a wall to prevent immigrants from reaching the United States at all. And that is by no means an exhaustive list. Also, since the Homeland Security Act, all immigration issues are defined under the banner of “homeland security,” which erroneously implies that immigrants are dangerous, and therefore a threat to national security. This also allows the government to claim that anti-immigrant legislation is actually designed to protect our national security, an authority that has already been exploited.
The massive displacement of Mexican farmers after NAFTA can be attributed in large part to foreign corporations. After the Mexican ejido system was done away with in the early 1990s, land that was previously protected became available for purchase. The privatization of the land, combined with the passage of NAFTA—which created a “free-trade zone” between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada—allowed foreign corporations to buy up land, mass-produce cheap, less nutritious crops, and undersell local farmers, forcing them to seek other means of employment. Not only did this destroy the lives of many farmers, it disrupted the ecosystem that the indigenous people had carefully protected for centuries. The introduction of genetically modified seeds, the use of chemicals and other ecologically devastating practices irreversibly changed the land.
With their land taken over or destroyed, farmers flocked to cities for more industrial work. If unable to find work in Mexico, many see immigration to the U.S. as the only remaining option. The trip to the U.S., through the desert, is by no means an easy one. Every year there are countless deaths along the Mexican – U.S. border. Mexicans trying to reach the U.S. often employ the services of coyotes—people who specialize in transporting undocumented people into the U.S. The cost of hiring a coyote—as well as the payment of bribes during the trip north—is very expensive; the use of coyotes also results in many deaths. The constant passage of people through border towns makes them notoriously dangerous, especially for women. In Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, hundreds of women have been murdered and no one has been able to fully explain who is to blame.
Overall, women are disproportionately affected by immigration. Sexism makes it more difficult for them to find work; and if they are able to get a job, they are often harassed and paid less than men. In many cases, men immigrate to the U.S. in search of work, leaving women the extremely difficult task of caring for the family.
Even if an immigrant makes it to the U.S., there are no guarantees that s/he will find work or have any better opportunities than in Mexico. Some Mexican immigrants are forced into debt slavery and end up doing agricultural work for virtually no money. (Several slavery rings have been discovered in southern Florida.) Others are caught and deported, in some cases back to dangerous areas only to be killed by gangs. The difficulty of life for a Mexican immigrant in the U.S. is compounded by the language barrier. Although the U.S. has no official language, many materials, signs, etc. are only in English. The majority of U.S. citizens do not speak Spanish (although this may change in the not-so-distant future). Racism is a daily reality for Mexican immigrants working in the U.S. They are routinely ridiculed and cheated because of their ethnic background.
Mexican immigrants work a variety of jobs. They may find work as farmworkers, picking fruits and vegetables, janitors, day laborers doing construction and work in the trades, hotel and restaurant workers, or a number of other jobs. This is not to say all Mexican immigrants work “low level” jobs. Many immigrants are politicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs of various types.
While Mexican immigrants face this dire reality everyday, many conservative pundits and politicians have the gall to claim that they are a detriment to the U.S. and a threat to the American way of life. The claims run the gamut: Mexican immigrants are called lazy, a drain on the economy, dangerous criminals, or illiterate gang-members. These claims are almost wholly false. Many immigrants, although undocumented, still pay taxes. The U.S. refuses to grant them citizenship but gladly accepts a percentage of their wages. Most immigrants work, and much harder than “average” American (or the pundits and politicians who criticize them) for that matter. And, even though they are trampled on, unseen and oppressed in a variety of ways, many immigrants learn English, pursue some type of education and contribute to our society. In fact, a significant percentage of the music we listen to and the art we enjoy is influenced and created by the immigrants in our midst. These contributions to our culture and economy are often overlooked, while the government refuses to create realistic, humane, workable change within the immigration system.
Many Mexican politicians have called for the U.S. government to address immigration in a more substantive, productive way however, they have been largely ignored, especially by the U.S. corporate media. The exhibit at the Mexican National Museum of Popular Culture is precisely the kind of multi-dimensional immigration education we need in the U.S. It should be seen by all the Americans who are unaware of the struggle of immigrants in the U.S. It should be seen by the pundits and politicians who act as if immigrants are destroying our society. And, it should be seen by everyone who wants to understand the long and complex history that has caused this phenomenon.