Sunday, April 01, 2012

Talking About Immigration and Migrations by Amelia M.L. Montes (

Imagine getting on a bicycle and riding for most of a summer, say about 8,000 miles across the United States in order to find out how people consider the issue of immigration. That’s what Dr. Louis Mendoza (Chair of Chicano Studies at The University of Minnesota) did in 2007. This June and September, Mendoza's two books will be published giving us all an insight into the conversations he had, the stories he discovered. Conversations Across Our America; Talking About Immigration and the Latinoization of the United States (UT Press—out in June) and A Journey Around Our America: A Memoir on Cycling, Immigration, and the Latinoization of the U.S. (UT Press—out in September) were his topics this week when he visited us at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln for our Ethnic Studies Celebration.

“Immigration is not something new in this country,” Mendoza said. “It is part of a historic pattern—where we see tension.” And within that tension Mendoza has seen “how immigrant families often forge strong intercultural community relationships at work and in their personal lives.” Forging these intercultural relationships is vital for everyone in order to have a more personal and real understanding of this situation.

Dr. Louis Mendoza giving the keynote at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this week

I sat with Dr. Mendoza last Thursday and asked him how he came up with this idea to ride 8,000 miles to interview the undocumented, the documented, second and third generation immigrants, and those who feel they are far removed from the issue. This is what he said:

“Following the heated spring and summer of 2006 with all these marches around the country, I was very proud of the Latino communities everywhere. We had a 40,000 plus rally in St. Paul that was very impressive and I wondered what to do with all of this."

"I had a sabbatical coming up and I could have gotten out of town, I could have gone to Mexico to do a project. But I like to be really grounded in my community. I needed to write about something that felt really relevant to me and my community—this (immigration) needed much more attention--that it called for something that was different than the typical academic project. After watching all this media coverage: Lou Dobbs, the broken borders program, Chris Matthews, all these folks that are just hammering and hammering at the Latino community, I felt like I needed to do something that would help speak back."

"And in working with a lot of immigrant rights organizations—what a lot of them feel is-- if people just understood who we are and why we’re here and that it’s a matter of life and death and that this is not fun for us and that we miss our home too, it would humanize the issue. You know—to me there’s such a missing piece of the human aspect. Immigrant organizations often say: We just need to humanize the issue and people would understand. That may be a little bit politically naïve but I get it too. Over and over, the people I’ve met who were getting along were people who had allies, friends, and lovers [within and outside of an immigrant community]. It’s about people saying, ‘well, okay, I understand this person as a whole human being and therefore I can’t hate them or see them as a thing or as this enemy or as this type.’"

"What was missing to me in the academic context, in the social context, are the voices of the people themselves. I didn’t want to study just this one community. I didn’t have a framework to just study one community. As a literary scholar I love stories. I’ve had a long appreciation of oral histories."

"You have to pay more attention to the content rather than the form sometimes to get to an intimate side of someone and know who they are. I wanted to collect stories, not just a common interview. I wanted to engage with people. I didn’t want to make mass generalizations of people as a whole."

"And this topic of immigration—well, I can hardly see the difference between 2007 [when he began his bike ride] and now . . . all of these issues are still very relevant.”

(Interview from Thursday, March 29).

Dr. Joy Castro, Dr. Louis Mendoza, Marcela Fuentes, Dr. Amelia M.L. Montes, Dr. Patrick Jones
at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ethnic Studies Spring Celebration (March 28, 2012)

And now for a different kind of Migration happening while Dr. Mendoza was giving his speech, while I was interviewing him, and right now at this moment as you are reading this blog----

Currently in Nebraska (in the Kearney area--about 130 miles west of Lincoln), about 450,000 Sandhill Cranes continue to feed on the waste grain in the cornfields next to or very near the Platte River. They’ve been here since February feeding to gain weight for the long flight to Alaska where they will nest. By mid-April, most will check for favorable winds and leave, flying north to Alaska to nest, and then in the fall, they will return south as far as Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico.

I first discovered the cranes when I arrived to Nebraska in 2000. I did not know about these majestic prehistoric birds who have been making this journey for literally thousands of years. The first time I saw them and heard their unusual call, I was mesmerized. You can hear their "unison" call here: click here. Also: click here for more information).

They come from a different time and yet they have expertly adapted to environmental changes. And because they come from as south as Mexico, I feel a connection. I hope someday I may see them in Mexico as well.

People from all over the world come to Kearney every year to see these birds. A little over a week ago (March 23rd), I was in a blind (a camouflaged shelter used to observe wildlife) with people from China, Spain, Mexico, Canada, and various parts of the U.S. I asked some of them why they had made the journey to see these birds. Some talked about the fascination with migration—how these birds travel hundreds of miles every year. The Mexican group said “they are the border crossers with no papers needed.” Orale. Indeed they are border crossers and their presence is vital to these North American geographic regions as they are to the south. Orale. Sending you all buenas energias!

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