It happened like clockwork. Every few weeks, especially in the winter months, when snowbirds traveled to my then-home in Tucson, Arizona, from parts north that included Michigan and Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, a letter to the editor would turn up at the paper where I worked. With slight changes, it would go something like: “I stopped in a store and overheard some people speaking Spanish. Why don’t they speak English?”
It took a little bit of time and a lot of convincing to explain that the families of many of these folks had been on the land the new arrivals so expansively and immediately claimed for generations, in the state since before it was a state, which Arizona didn’t become until 1912. It also has the greatest percentage of its acreage designated as Indian tribal land in the United States. And would it hurt you to know a word or two of Spanish?
Those are facts I was eager to learn — often from those long-timers — when I moved from the East Coast, many miles and a world away. Better late than never.
I thought of those brief history lessons when I read the seething words left behind, it is believed, by the young man accused of driving hundreds of miles to El Paso to murder “Mexicans,” some of them folks whose ancestors probably had been in Texas under many flags before it was the state of Texas. The sprawling suburban house thought to have been his home for a time looks as though it could be a suburban house in Anywhere, USA, not some bastion of Texas culture. His life goal, as shared on a LinkedIn profile believed to be his, said: “I’m not really motivated to do anything more than what’s necessary to get by.”
Was he lazy, a pejorative usually reserved for black and brown people doing the work since America’s founding, but instead fitting those like the accused shooter, resentful for not automatically winning the prize? Apparently, he spent too much energy and time brooding about his expectations as a young, white man, angry that he might be losing the privilege of getting ahead while doing not much of anything, not knowing much of anything.
Despite the hopes of older generations that young people growing up in a diverse society would experience enough to save the country from its history and itself, the youth of the killers and accused from Charleston, South Carolina, to El Paso poke a hole in that theory.
In America, ignorance is obviously dangerous when it leads to twisted ideologies and domestic terrorism schemes.
But short of that ultimate evil, not knowing much about many things can also translate into indifference, hostility and policies that do harm to the people and the idea of America.
Lack of awareness is certainly not limited to a certain region or age or person. I’ve been schooled by The New York Times’ series of “Overlooked” obituaries, stories of the pioneers and innovators who happened to be women and minorities, icons whose life’s work and passing received no notice in their times from the paper that helps to write history.
There are bound to be consequences when so many are content with knowing little more than what’s necessary to get by. “The stories we tell become the world we live in,” goes the saying I repeat and sincerely mean when leading seminars for The OpEd Project.
Right now we are seeing what happens when a blinkered view of history takes hold, in a chipping away of the rights of legal immigrants, new policies courtesy of the Trump administration, despite its earlier insistence that illegal immigration was the problem.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has been criticized for tweaking Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty to “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” and again when he interpreted that hopeful invitation as “referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
Cuccinelli conveniently forgot the history that not too many of those arriving at Ellis Island toted sacks of cash or spoke perfect and unaccented English, and that his own ancestors who sought opportunity in America might not pass muster.
While most non-citizens do not qualify for public benefits, the rules announced by Cuccinelli would affect the present and future status of those who have already cleared initial hurdles to becoming citizens. They could expand the types of benefits that could potentially disqualify an applicant to include prior use of Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or food stamps) and housing assistance. A chilling effect might keep immigrants and even U.S. citizens from applying for benefits or cause them to withdraw from programs for themselves and their families.
Will all those politicians who regale crowds with stories of hard-working ancestors who succeeded with grit — and government programs such as the G.I. Bill and Social Security — at least recognize the hypocrisy?
Why not just rewrite a poem?
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.