I once heard a story about a man that needed to go north from Mexico to the United States in the 1940s. At the time, Guerrero, Mexico was depleted of resources and there were no jobs for the people. It spread throughout the city that there was work in the United States through a temporary workers program.
The man knew this was his chance to go north, so he went to where all the laborers were gathering to leave. A name was called and no one responded, so he claimed another man’s spot and crossed the border to work in the fields harvesting strawberries and avocados in California. After the temporary worker program ended, he remained in the U.S. undocumented to live out most of his life. That man was my grandfather. A man that only existed through the stories of my grandmother and father.
This past month has been full of horrifying stories of the U.S.-Mexico border filled with headlines such as “Build the Wall” and “Make America Great Again.” Discourse that has been used by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and now by the Trump administration. Unoriginal and xenophobic. In 2018, news broke that migrant children at the border were being detained in fenced cages and were separated from their parents. Recently, a heartbreaking image of two bodies, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his toddler daughter, Valeria, went viral as they had drowned together in attempting to cross the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas. An image that will forever be imprinted in my mind and soul.
People fear what they do not know, and by not asking vulnerable questions are misinformed or remain uninformed of historical facts. The relationship of the U.S.-Mexico border, unfortunately, is nothing new. However, many individuals do not know the history of how the border came to be.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, which ended the Mexican American War. The treaty declared California and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado a part of the United States. When you hear counter-discourse stating, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” it is referring to lost or stolen land that was once Mexico, but forever will be indigenous.
In 1910, the Mexican Revolution began, which caused thousands of Mexicans to flee and cross the border for safety. In 1924, Texas Rangers began to police the Border, which later became known as the “border patrol.” During the same time, the Immigration Act or Johnson-Reed Act was established to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.
In 1942, the Bracero program began in response to worker shortages brought on by World War II, allowing Mexicans to work temporarily in the United States, mostly in agricultural areas. That marked the beginning of my family story on my paternal side.
My grandfather participated in the Bracero Program (1942-1964), which I knew was a temporary workers program, but it was not until graduate school that I would learn more about what that meant. My master’s degree is in Chicana and Chicano Studies. I am often asked what that is, and did I learn anything. My academic and social training in Chicana and Chicano Studies, or ethnic studies more broadly, has been the most rigorous and rewarding of all the training I have ever received.
It was my first exposure and the opportunity to learn in-depth texts such as: The Chicana Feminist by Martha Cotera, Occupied America by Rodolfo Acuña, Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa, El Plan de Aztlan, El Plan de Santa Barbara and so many more. Chicana and Chicano Studies taught me the importance of my history as a Chicana. More importantly, it gave me a language to write, and the ability to provide a brief history of the border to you as my readers.
Christine Sleeter, a professor of education and reformer, conducted a research review titled, “The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies,” where she found that “studies using different research methodologies, investigating students at middle school through university levels, in different regions of the U.S., consistently find a relationship between academic achievement, high level of awareness of race and racism, and positive identification with one’s own racial group.” This holds true for myself and, I am sure, many others.
Ethnic studies has been under attack and attempted to be abolished in Arizona under HB 2281. It is also seen of great value and being offered in fall 2020 in California public high schools. High school students will not have to wait until graduate school to be exposed to a rich history of various ethnicities and cultures. In times where the climate of the nation is set on false precedents and fear, I return to ethnic studies because it offers a wealth of knowledge regarding survival, resistance, collective struggle, hope and love.
I am a proud granddaughter of a Bracero laborer. Ethnic studies saved my life histories from being permanently lost. If you do not know my story, do not fear it, ask me about it. I have a lot to share with you.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of higher education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia