As a Latina, living in America can be difficult. Growing up in California as a child I knew it wasn’t okay to speak Spanish in public. In my twenties I was asked for a “green card and an ID” by the doorman at a nightclub. After I’d earned my Ph.D. I was stopped for speeding and the police officer who stopped me asked for my social security card and my driver license. These are just a few of the experiences that have made living in America a challenge for me—and they all took place before Arizona passed the equivalent of the apartheid South African pass laws, or the Soviet system of internal passports. If someone thinks this analogy is too strong they are not walking in the footsteps of a Latino in America.
How did we, as a nation, move so far away from public policies focused on social equity to policies that ask Latinos to prove that they belong in this country? Despite the neoconservative backlash against social equity promoting policies of all kinds (i.e., the end of the welfare safety net, the redistribution of the tax burden to middle and lower income families, the shift to ‘‘color blind’’ admissions in universities), these policies work in the long run. Racist policies such as Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 do not. I know this from research and from personal experience.
My parents were agricultural laborers with limited formal education. I had a child at 17. Completing high school was too much of a struggle, not the academics, but materially – trying to support my child and secure childcare brought endless concerns. I saw before me one low wage job after another. What were the odds that I would go to college and complete graduate school–‘‘very low,’’ according to what was noted in my file by an academic adviser at a local community college, where I eventually began my college education. In truth, it would have been impossible to overcome my circumstances without policies such as affirmative action.
We are much better off as a society if Latinos can get beyond the dismal educational figures put out by the Pew Hispanic Center that show almost half of adult Latinos do not have a high school diploma. However, our energies are no longer solely focused on improving educational attainment among Latinos. Because of the anti-Latino, anti-immigrant climate (See also here) in America exemplified in Arizona’s legislation, our energies are now focused on trying to demonstrate that we belong, that this is our country too, that despite the fact that in many places we are not welcomed, we are not going away.
What is the cost to us as a nation with the turn away from public policies that have demonstrated to be so beneficial to policies that create a negative identity towards the United States among many Latinos? What is the cost to democracy when the Latino community—the largest ethnic and racial community in America—is continually left out of important aspects of mainstream society? I know I won’t be visiting my parents in Arizona without my passport.