Former UTSA professor Louis Mendoza is on an ambitious sabbatical from his current post at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chicano Studies. His San Antonio stop this week is roughly the three-quarters mark on a six-month cycling trip tracing America’s borders and gathering stories that shed light on our country’s increasingly Latino-ized identity. He spoke with the Current by phone while he was visiting Houston, his hometown, for a few days. You can follow his travels at journeyacrossouramerica.blogspot.com/.
You just recently came through New Orleans, and in some of the news reports we’ve read about how there are a lot of immigrants from Latin America who are helping to rebuild the city. Did you speak to some of those folks?
I did. I went to some day-labor places ... to the sites where they hang out and get work. ... I talked to `a` guy who ran one of these taco trucks, and he’s sort of at the places where they hang out. He had a lot of interesting insights, because his place becomes like a location where people tell him what they’ve been experiencing everywhere.
He was able to tell me both the good and bad things he’s heard from people, as well as his own experiences.
What were some of the good things?
Oh, well, he was very happy. He’s been there for about a year, and he said he has family that’s been there for over 10 years, and that’s sort of one reason why he decided to go, because he’s a young man and he’s married and he and his wife just haven’t been able to make it in their hometown in Mexico. He was an accountant in Mexico but just wasn’t able to make a living, and so they started off just in their car going around to all these day-labor sites and selling food, and he said he did so well he was able to buy a truck. I mean, it’s not a new truck, it’s a used vending truck, but nevertheless. And so with that he’s able to be at just one site all day and make the food right there. So he’s only had a truck since March and he said business has gone really, really well. He was telling me that he felt like life in Mexico, on a scale of 1-100, it ranged from 10-80, and he said that here in New Orleans his life was like 100, because he could actually save money, he could actually get ahead, and he didn’t mind working hard, it was just a question of having the opportunity to work regularly, and so he felt a strong sense of independence and ability to advance.
Did you find there was much tension between the locals and the immigrants who were coming in to work there?
Well, I asked him about that ... he said by-and-large no, and they always make the point that there are individuals that sometimes have issues with them, but he didn’t feel in general that was the issue. And, in fact, just being there at this place, there was a lot of mixture of both new immigrants and African-Americans sort of hanging around waiting for jobs, almost all young men, and I saw evidence of them getting along quite well, including young black men going up to the taco trucks and ordering food in Spanish. I think I said something to one of them like, Wow, that’s pretty good, and he’s like, Oh, man, my homeboy’s been teaching me here. And so it’s just this kind of stuff like they get to know each other by hanging out, so it’s this classic case of where experience trumps ignorance all the time.
Your theme is looking at the Latinization of the U.S., and I think that we all think that we know ways in which we see it, just in terms of how our diet has changed, the language. Are there more subtle things you’re picking up on as you go through these cities and towns?
I feel like I’ve learned the most profound lessons from the small towns, and to me this is really interesting, because growing up in Texas, there’s sort of a sterotype being an inner-city kid. And not just a stereotype, my experience is that small towns were places to sort of be afraid of, that they were a little bit less progressive-minded, a little less used to change.
Sure, they might be Jasper.
`Laughs.` Exactly, there you go. And that was my experience growing up. We’d travel across West Texas and have to go to the back of stores and gas stations to buy things, so it was still a Jim Crow reality. ... we’ve heard more recently in the debates around this stuff is that it’s the small towns that are creating all these local ordinances to control immigrant populations — they can’t rent to them, or they can’t give them jobs, so many different things — there’s literally 100 small towns across the country that have done this. Yet, what I’ve found is on the ground level so many of these small towns are very cognizant of the fact that new immigrants have saved their economy, they’ve actually saved the very existence of this town, whether you’re talking about the lumber mills of Oregon, or the agriculture industry of places in California — Minnesota, even — a lot of places that people tell me that if it wasn’t for these people doing these jobs, that the town’s economy would have died and that people may have had to move. •