The Long, Charming Reach of Racism

Being an EstadoUnidense* in Latin America should not be easy.  Forget Pakistan; there is no region of the world with more legitimate and longstanding grievances against the U.S. than Latin America.  Ecuadorians, for example, could complain about the CIA’s supposed role in the death of President Jaime Roldós in 1981, or, more concretely, the enduring impact of U.S.-imposed structural adjustment and neoliberalism on their country.

Despite all this, though, there hasn’t been a single moment here where I feel uncomfortable saying I’m from the U.S.  Most people don’t seem to have any problem separating people from policy, and realizing that I, personally, was not involved in the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, am not an active part of Plan Colombia, and do not work for the IMF.  It helps, of course, that most people have family in the U.S., and designs on visiting or living there at least at some point during their lives.

Being from Arizona, though, is a different matter.  I haven’t actually lived in Arizona for two years now, and yet my first reflex is still to tell people that’s where I’m from.  As soon as I do, I can see people thinking, “Where have I heard that name before?” A second or two later, their faces tense up, and I quickly add, “Yeah, I’m from Arizona, but I don’t support that terrible immigration law.”

With SB 1070 partially going into effect tomorrow, there has been another wave of media coverage of the law in the last few days.  I have to say, I’m a bit astonished that, here in the Amazon, people are talking about what’s happening in a state that is—even by Red State standards—a backwater (we’re worse than Mississippi in education).  I’ve tried to explain a half-dozen times now why it is that Arizonans seem to dislike Latinos so much: “But we just want to work” is the refrain I get over and over again, or, last night, “What, are we so ugly?”

At first, I wondered what Arizona’s legislators would think if they knew how far this law reached and how deep condemnation of it runs.  If only they knew how strongly world opinion was against them. Then it occurs to me, though: the whole idea of conservativism—and the U.S.  exceptionalism they celebrate—is to be indifferent to the rest of the world.  Other countries think the death penalty is barbaric?  We’ll show them—we’ll execute people, and do it by firing squad at that!  We’re the only developed country without a public health care system?  Damnit, we’ll keep it that way, waste of money and lost lives be damned!  The fact that all of Latin America now thinks Arizonans are a bunch of racists is, by all accounts, a plus: good, maybe now they’ll stay home (and we can pick our own lettuce)!

In many of my conversations, I denounce Arizona’s law, explaining that I—unlike most of my fellow Arizonans—actually pay attentiont t the studies that show immigrants don’t really come to the U.S. to cause crime and steal jobs.  Unaware of the irony in what they saying, not a small number of Ecuadorians have responded to this by explaining to me that, “Well, here immigrants really do cause crime.” Many Ecuadorians, sadly, are also incredibly xenophobic: Cubans and Colombians are to Ecuadorians what Mexicans are to U.S.-ians and Poles are to the British.  It would seem that some of these things are universal and…

Jan Brewer, at least, would be proud.

…wait, what am I getting at?  Maybe the Republicans are right—sometimes it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks.  Xenophobia and racism and scapegoating are intrinsically wrong, whether or not the world community gets its act together to consistently denounce it.  And so, I say, fuck you Jan Brewer—fieldwork was already complicated enough before you made it harder.

*There’s no perfect translation, but “American” doesn’t sound quite right as a nationality in Latin America.

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