Professor tells tales of immigration

Photo Dr. Louis Mendoza advocates for understanding and cooperation. Story and Photo by Kristina Jackson, NewsNetNebraska

As part of the Institute of Ethnic Studies’ Spring Celebration, a University of Minnesota professor recounted the lessons he learned on an 8000-mile bike ride around the U.S.

Dr. Louis Mendoza, chair of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota, spoke about his interactions both with immigrants and non-immigrants about their communities’ changing relations. Mendoza wanted to clarify what is really happening in the U.S. while also providing historical context for immigration conflict. Mendoza also established the importance of not only immigration, but cooperation.

“I’ve seen how immigrant families often forge strong intercultural community relationships at work and in their personal lives,” Mendoza said.

On March 28, Mendoza delivered his remarks to a crowd of about 60 at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. He followed Chancellor Harvey Perlman, Arts and Sciences dean David Manderscheid and several arts and sciences department chairs, all of whom spoke about UNL’s ethnic studies program.

Mendoza’s travels took him to every corner of the country, from Texas to Oregon to Pennsylvania. Everywhere he went, he encountered people with immigration stories. He realized the national debate is very personal and people are trying to effect change in attitudes toward immigrants.

“Whose voices are missing from the increasingly hostile debates about immigration and national identity that surround us?” he asked. “How can we interrupt the incessant media hype and sensationalism that pits us versus them?”

Following this introduction, Mendoza gave some historical background on Latino immigrants in America. Immigrants from Latin nations, Mendoza said, date back to the mid-1800s and come from many countries in Central and South America.

“This is part of a historic pattern in this country, where we see tension,” he said.

Today, larger numbers of Latino immigrants are dispersed throughout the country, especially in rural areas. According to Mendoza, as people move out of rural areas and into cities, foreign-born farm workers stabilize the population.

Some in the U.S. fear these changing demographics, especially the language barrier that it brings, a fear Mendoza thinks is unfounded.

“Latinos are very aware they need to learn English,” he said. “Latinos have been asserting their right to be bilingual.”

Mendoza came to several conclusions based on his observations. He described the cultural exchange as not uni-directional. Cultures influence each other, such as when he found a selection of Mexican food at a traditional American diner.

Through his trip, Mendoza saw people’s attitudes are slowly changing, usually along generational lines. Younger people do not want the same working class jobs their parents had, so immigrants take those positions as laborers. This means that the economy, especially in rural areas, depends on immigrant labor.

Mendoza told the story of a small town that cracked down on immigrant labor so that many laborers left. The town then struggled to replace them and desperately searched for new laborers.

One of the most important lessons Mendoza learned, he said, is that people need to actively work toward making change in the area of immigration. People can change the tone of debate.

“Leadership makes a huge difference for what the tenor of the relationship is going to be,” he said.

Mendoza said that anti-immigrant sentiment has morphed into anti-Latino sentiment. On his trip, he saw the benefits immigrant culture can bring, so he hopes people can work together to settle differences.

“It’s this notion of refusing to understand a sense of mutuality. We need them as much as they need us. We ought to, therefore, work toward a mutually beneficial solution.”