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Closed Doors : The Immigrant: To Work or Die in California

August 15, 1993|RICHARD RODRIGUEZ | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking).

SAN FRANCISCO — Californians are afraid of the future and cannot imagine themselves in the great world. To prove it, Gov. Pete Wilson last week published an open letter to President Bill Clinton, urging a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants as well as the repeal of federal mandates requiring health and education services for illegal immigrants.

On the same day that the governor published his letter ("on behalf of the people of California"), I was at a chic Los Angeles hotel. All day, I saw Mexicans working, busily working to maintain California's legendary "quality of life." The common complaint of Californians is that the immigrants, whether legally or illegally here, are destroying our quality of life. But there the Mexicans were--hosing down the tiles by the hotel swimming pool, gardening, everywhere gardening. The woman who could barely speak English was making beds; at the Yuppie restaurant, Mexican men impersonated Italian chefs.

Who could accuse Wilson of xenophobia? The governor was, after all, only concerned with those immigrants illegally here. His presumption was that the illegal immigrants are here only for the umbrella of welfare services. Remove those benefits and they will go back to Mexico, the governor reasoned. Here was a presumption in Wilson's letter that betrayed naivete about the desperation of the Third World poor and their wild ambition for work.

"God, do they work," a friend confides over martinis in Bel-Air. "I've never seen people work like those Mexicans."

What troubles us about the Mexican immigrant is that she works too hard. The myth California has advertised to the world is that here is a place of leisure--the myth of blond beaches and palm trees. The myth continues: California was created by "internal immigrants," by Americans from Iowa or Oklahoma or Brooklyn, N.Y. They came to California in search of a softer winter, an easier America.

In truth, life in Los Angeles today is no more difficult than life in Chicago or Atlanta or New York--but that is not the point. Californians expect life in L.A. to be easier than life back East. Native-born Californians remember being able to park in Westwood; they are appalled by the loss of the green hills and by having to wait in line--lines at the grocery store, lines at the DMV, lines on the Santa Monica freeway. California, people say, used to be easier.

It is inevitable that the governor of California would misunderstand, would assume that the Mexicans are coming for welfare. In a state whose most famous industry is entertainment, the desperate Mexican must puzzle us. Desperate immigrants challenge the sunniest myth we have about ourselves and this place. Mexicans, looking for work, would turn Los Angeles into a city like Cleveland or Hong Kong, a Mexican city.

It is embarrassing to watch the Mexican work, like watching a peasant ant. The Mexican, perhaps most especially the illegal immigrant, reminds us how hard life is, he reminds us that in much of this world, one must work or die.

Work becomes life. The feel of work, the assurance of a handle to hold, a hope. The peach is torn from the branch, the knife slits open the fish; the stoke is plunged into the earth (faster . . . faster). Work or die. The Mexican works.

Not only are Mexicans working, of course. There are also Vietnamese, Koreans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Chinese. Wilson's letter to the President was only concerned with Mexicans and with Mexico, but many Californians probably are made more uneasy with the Asian migration. If, as the governor believes, Mexicans are a burden because they are poor, Asians are a threat because they are poised to take over the city. In San Francisco, people say it all the time--the Chinese are taking over the city.

During the Gold Rush, in the mid-19th Century, Chinese miners were chased off the fields by other prospectors. Mexicans (many of whom arrived from northern Mexico, bringing with them mining skills) were also chased away. But many generations later, now, the parent in Walnut Creek, a father of three, tells me that Asians are unfair. (His daughter has not been admitted to Berkeley.) "Asians are unfair because they work so hard."

In the 1970s, when L.A. officials boasted that their city was "the Pacific Rim capital," it seemed easy. After all, no one at the Chamber of Commerce imagined the Pacific Rim might also include the countries of Latin America. And no one imagined that the term had anything to do with freighters sagging with Chinese immigrants, eager for jobs at downtown sweat shops. L.A.--the Pacific Rim capital . . . Californians imagined that the providence of God that had created this lovely place would fulfill itself. We would be able to live off the fat of the emerging global economy, and we would pay no price.

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