NINE YEARS AGO, the Mexican norteno supergroup Los Tigres del Norte recorded "El Mojado Acaudalado" ("The Wealthy Wetback"), a bouncy mestizo polka about a Mexican immigrant who found prosperity in the United States but ached for his home. The song's protagonist bids adios to the places where he sweated out most of his adult life -- the "fields of Arizona," "factories of New York" and jobs and points in between -- and returns to his beloved Mexico.
"I'm not going to forget the United States," Tigres lead singer Jorge Hernandez sang, his voice heavy with the melancholy of millions. "I wanted good cash and I came to earn it. But in my beloved land, I'm thinking of spending it."
That was 1997. Now contrast that with the story of my father, who first sneaked into this country in 1969 in the trunk of a Chevy along with three other men. He played a cat-and-mouse game with immigration authorities for the next decade -- they would deport him, he would sneak back in -- until the 1986 amnesty put my father on the path to citizenship. Shortly after taking his citizenship oath, he bought a house in his hometown of Jerez, Zacatecas, in central Mexico. My father sent money and appliances back to the house over the next 15 years -- in the hope he'd soon move back with his four children.
Last year, my father sold the house. He said he wanted to use the money to build a new kitchen in our Anaheim home.
The stories of the Wealthy Wetback and my father are the lens through which we should view the American immigrant experience and the ongoing immigrant rallies in Southern California and across the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos protested for the right to live and work in this country and against proposed immigration legislation, which includes making being in the U.S. illegally a felony and plans for a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. They took to the streets in the very cities where the Wealthy Wetback worked: 500,000 in Los Angeles, 100,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Denver, 20,000 in Phoenix, and elsewhere.
They protested on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement, and white America looked on in nervous disbelief as men and women, children and the elderly emerged from the shadows to boldly walk through the thoroughfares of this country's largest cities. Already there are shouts of anger by Americans astounded that the undocumented dared agitate for visibility, dared ask for amnesty after entering this country illegally.
But such criticism misses the larger picture -- these protests represent a political maturation for the United States' largest minority and are the best contributions Latinos have made to this nation since Shakira.
Few immigrant groups in U.S. history have spent so much time maintaining ties to their nations of origin as have Latinos. Citizenship in this country was always a secondary goal, something that guaranteed benefits and little else. But the ceaseless waves of immigration since Los Tigres del Norte recorded their tune triggered a change in the Latino psyche. With so many of them here, Latinos realized they weren't going anywhere and thus decided to do something about it.
So now, it's no longer enough to earn money for a few years, send it home and then retire there in relative luxury. No, full citizenship is now the ultimate bounty of \o7El Norte\f7.
Those Latino multitudes who marched waving the Stars and Stripes sought the right to remain here and enter the American social contract. They want the responsibilities and burdens of citizenship. Sure, there were Mexican flags, and people shouted "Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!" as if they were cheering on the tricolor soccer squad. But the chatter on the streets was that of assimilation. The most telling sign was the young people at the protest -- the children of immigrants, who chanted in Spanish then talked to each other in perfect English. They are the legacy of the illegal immigrants -- the reason why the illegals want to belong.
Even if the proposed bill passes, you won't see these immigrants take the decision lightly. These people who long searched for a voice will now scream with it. They will continue to press for recognition and will not rest until Congress gives it. Not handouts, but recognition. A chance. They will no longer accept exploitation. Illegal immigrants no longer want to hide from the federal government; they welcome scrutiny, confident in their potential as Americans.
By protesting, the marchers pledged allegiance to their future and ours, not the past. The U.S. will benefit from these newly conscious illegals, just as it has when it put other minority groups through the fires of nativism and bigotry. The undocumented yearning to be legal should not worry us. Most will turn out like my father: He still loves his Mexico, but he realizes that the best future for him and his family is in \o7los Estados Unidos. \f7
Workers finally finished my parents' kitchen a couple of weeks ago. It now features gleaming tile and oak cabinets. The Wealthy Wetback cashed out, and he's never been happier.