Chair of the Department of History at Colorado College Douglas Monroy came to Whitman in February to deliver the Mary L. Bierman Lecture on the History of the American West. Monroy's talk was titled "Nightmares and Dreams of Immigrants: How the New World Border Changes Who We Are and Where We Are." He is the author of numerous books on U.S. history, including the award-winning Thrown among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California, Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression and, most recently, The Borders Within: Encounters between Mexico and the U.S.
Monroy's visit was sponsored by the Whitman College Department of History and the Virgil Robert and Mary L. Bierman Endowment.
What are three things that Whitman students might learn about the fragility of borders and their political meaning?
It should be becoming more and more apparent that the New World Border condition means that the sort of thinking to which most in Mexico and America have been accustomed—this thought pattern of moral and legal absolutes—has gone the way of the old version and comfort of "the border." One side cannot be so easily separated from the other. In a New World Border way of thinking we would realize that the presence of Mexican immigrants, legal or not, is not random, inexplicable or malicious.
The situation has not so much to do with the criminality of Mexicans as it does with the actions of economic and political elites on both sides of the border. The notion that undocumented Mexican immigration should simply be criminalized and the children tossed from schools—the easy conclusion using the simplistic and sensationalist ways of politicians, preachers and TV news personalities—is not as simple as it would appear. So too is the notion that federal legislation decriminalizing undocumented immigrants, and more teachers and diversity programs in the schools, will make everything ok. Neither will restore the paradise lost. Free market thinking will only distance it further.
No one is inclined to think in utopian terms anymore. Maybe this is realistic, but it makes it hard to imagine a better future.
Instead it's about holding several opposed ideas at once. NAFTA increases the prosperity of some, ruins the subsistence of others, brings more immigrants to the United States, sends more gangs and drugs across the border, enhances the quality of life for many natives and many strangers, burdens schools and hospitals and binds countries together in ways that will become all the more astounding.
And, in the short term, it is about including immigrants from south of the border in our sense of who is worthy of moral consideration. Mexicans and Americans are so bound up together that there is no other ethical or practical course.
Yet people on both sides will continue to blame what they don't like—immigrants; de-industrialization and NAFTA; desperation and criminality; cranky, scared voters; a population exceeding what the ecosystem can bear—when indeed the harsh truth is that all of these things come into play, and they are, obviously, interrelated. Amidst all the creative destruction, itself a notion containing two opposed ideas, we can only "retain the ability to function" if we enhance not only our "ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time," in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but many opposed ideas.
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