Reading Response – Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

Ngai’s main argument is that illegal aliens were created through acts of positive law rather than through bad character, conduct, race or culture. In other words, prior to legislation that designated certain individuals as being in the country illegally, the category did not exist. Further, she argues that illegal immigration is a necessary by-product of a restrictive immigration process and that, in the American context, illegal immigration was not a side-channel to legal immigration. She argues instead that illegal immigration was used as a primary means of entering the U.S. by many immigrants and played a major role in populating the country. It seems that what she is attempting to clarify is the fact that many people immigrated to the country illegally, but found ways to have their status legalized after the fact, with the moral implications of illegal entry being dependent on race and the time-period examined.

While touching briefly on Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants, Ngai’s narrative focuses primarily on migrants and immigrants from Mexico and how their experience has shaped the modern discourse regarding illegal aliens in the United States. She presents Mexicans as the archetypal illegal immigrant in the American imagination. In Ngai’s view, the focus on Mexicans as illegal immigrants is a result of the border culture in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico as well as U.S. labor practices and policies. Ngai’s aim seems to be to show that the push by southwestern agriculturalists for cheap labor drove the importation, legal and otherwise, of Mexican laborers. Because the legal avenues for migration for work purposes became increasingly odious, many Mexicans preferred to cross into the country illegally.  The best example she gives for this is the bracero program, which put Mexicans in a situation that left them generally worse off than if they hired themselves out on an individual basis.

Ngai’s argument is reasonable. She points out that illegal immigration from Mexico was the result of a failure on the part of the U.S. government to create adequate structures for legal entry by Mexican workers. She also points out that the drive for cheap labor that created the bracero program was based on a failure of the U.S. government to stand up to greedy agriculturalists and insist on fair wages for American workers. Ngai argues that this happened because the way people thought of America as a nation shifted. Laws were created to create the desired legal population. This shift created avenues for Europeans to become legalized but left Mexicans excluded from belonging to the nation in the American imagination. This exclusion was also the case for Japanese and Chinese immigrants, regardless of their legal or illegal status and whether they were citizens by naturalization or birth.

Ngai’s use of the Japanese and Filipino experience in the context of illegal immigration seems out of place. Did she include these groups to present a broader contrast between the way that Asiatic and Latin American immigrants were treated in comparison to Europeans? The experiences of these groups show that racism played a part in defining European Americans’ view of the nation, but “nullification” of citizenship rights and decolonization with voluntary repatriation are not the same as being considered an illegal entrant. The concept of being illegal connotes a violation of the law and a lack of citizenship status. For the Japanese, or at least the Nisei, their citizenship was never in question and neither was the legality of their status as Americans. The Issei did not enter the country illegally. They did not have access to citizenship but they were accepted legally, if not socially, as residents. With the Filipinos, repatriation was voluntary, rather than forced, indicating that their position was not illegal in the sense that they could be forcefully deported in an immigration sweep like Operation Wetback.

Ngai’s work is especially important in the way that it reveals the underlying assumptions about how the national body was viewed and how that view created the legal structures that created illegal immigrants. The immigration system was constructed in a way that ignored existing labor migration and pandered to the desire of agriculturalists to maximize profit with cheap labor. The willingness of Mexicans to take on jobs that were considered low paying to Americans fed into a racial image of Mexicans as undeveloped, while simultaneously painting them as lazy or arrogant if they refused to be cheated out of their wages or benefits. The Mexican stereotype that developed seems to have been applied to all non-European immigrants and work like Ngai’s helps to correct that historical narrative.

Reading Response: Becoming Mexican American… by George Sanchez

Considering the title, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, one would assume that George Sanchez’s book would be a history about the growth and development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945. However, the scope of the book becomes increasingly far-flung as the narrative progresses, much to the detriment of the author’s stated intention of examining cultural change in Los Angeles. Instead, Sanchez’s book shallowly covers multiple topics and areas, from labor history to radio programming, from rural villages in central and northern Mexico to El Paso, TX and points beyond, leaving the reader with the impression that much ground has been covered, but not in detail on any given subject. Despite the wide range of topics covered, Sanchez uses a variety of records and information from numerous fields of research to support his arguments, including Mexican consular documents, American government records, transcripts of oral testimonies from Mexican immigrants, and letters to provide a broad understanding of the factors that impacted Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles and their descendants.

One of the areas where Sanchez’s work excels is in his depiction of the social and economic interconnectedness of Mexico and the southwestern United States as a result of pre-existing Mexican communities in the area as well as through labor migration that led to cyclical and, eventually, additional permanent settlement. Part I of Becoming Mexican American… describes this process and is, in effect, a transnational historical narrative. Sanchez states that he wants to show that the culture that immigrants brought with them to the United States was not stagnant, but was rather a vibrant, complicated amalgamation of rural and urban mores that developed in Mexican villages in in the second half of the 19th century. However, this does not come through clearly in his writing. For one, the implication is that rural laborers somehow came to possess urban culture while migrating along rail lines for work. Additionally, it implies that laborers arrived in Los Angeles with a fully formed and static culture. It seems more reasonable to say that the process of cultural change that took place in Los Angeles was a continuation of what began in small rural villages in central and northern Mexico.

Sanchez’s comparison of labor migration within Mexico and the United States builds on the idea of regional interconnectedness. He demonstrates this primarily through his discussion of the Mexican rail system that connected northern Mexico more fully to the U.S. than it did to the rest of the country. The opportunities for labor created by the rail system pulled manual laborers away from their homes to travel and work on the rails. As they reached areas closer to the border with the U.S., they saw opportunities to perform the same labor for higher wages. However, this discussion, along with the highly detailed habits of border checkpoint guards, does not seem highly relevant to the topic of the development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles.

Certainly, the openness of the border led to continued migration into the U.S., part of which created the community in Los Angeles, but why was a third of the narrative devoted to what feels like only partially relevant background information. It would have been more useful if the author had provided a brief overview of this topic and then spent more time explaining what the culture of Mexicans in Los Angeles was and how it developed over time. For example, Sanchez devotes an entire chapter to religion, but never goes further than saying the immigrants practiced what Catholic priests in the U.S. considered “folk Catholicism”. What is folk Catholicism? Exactly what were their beliefs and how did they contrast to mainstream Catholicism? Similarly, why did Sanchez spend so much time describing propaganda to encourage Anglos to move to Los Angeles? Why should we care what a Mexican intellectual who is not a resident of Los Angeles thinks about racial homogeneity in relation to the topic of this work? Also, why does Sanchez treat buying a radio as a special sign of cultural development? Is it not normal for people to be interested in purchasing devices that make their lives more comfortable, like the sewing machines he notes were prominent in rural Mexican households in Mexico?

While Sanchez’s book clearly has a lot to offer in terms of in-depth research about regional migration and labor history, most of what he presents is only coincidentally relevant to the community in Los Angeles and how their view of themselves and their position in relation to other inhabitants in the city changed over time. One is left with the feeling that certain sections of the book were originally meant to be stand-alone articles and that an original, cohesive text was supplemented by partially relevant, sometimes dense, textbook-style prose that was book-ended with an argument to attempt to tie everything together.

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last Saturday, I went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue to conduct a scavenger hunt for certain types of items in this exhibit and then drafted up an essay response, but I thought it might be useful to people thinking about going to see the exhibit itself, so I’m posting it here as well.


The exhibit, “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017. Like the title of the exhibit implies, the selection of art being displayed includes pieces that are representative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “People Under Heaven” in the Abrahamic tradition.

Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven
 

One of the displays contains a set of astrolabes, which, according to the description, were devices that were “used to answer questions related to time, geography, and the position of the stars.” The three astrolabes on display were all created in Andalusia and include the city of Jerusalem. The text on the astrolabes were written in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. Another interesting item with text in multiple languages is “Slaughter of the Amalekites and Saul’s Last Stand,” which contains marginal notes in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian, written by subsequent owners of the book.

Most of the items were in pretty common languages used in the area, like those mentioned above, though there were exceptions. There is a text called “The Book of Kings” which I assume is written in an Ethiopian language, but I cannot be sure because the language used is not included in the description. More clearly labeled is a Copto-Arabic Book of Prayers, written in the Bohairic dialect of Coptic Egyptian. There is also a Book of Saints’ Lives written in what I can only assume is Georgian, again because the description is not clear.

There is a very large variety of items on display. There were at least three different versions of the Bible: a Samaritan Bible from 1232 CE in Yavneh, a Bible from northern Europe, ca. 1300, and a Bible from 13th century Rome or Bologna. There are also Jewish liturgical books like “Opening Prayer for Shabbat Parah” from 1257-58 CE, “The Catalan Mahzor” from 1280 CE, and “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a Haggadah from 1360-1370 CE. There were also choir books, swords, vases, amazing Jewish wedding rings, pillar capitals and reliquaries.

Two items that really caught my attention were the “A Knight of the d’Aluye Family” and the “’Umra Certificate.” The “Knight” sculpture was the covering of a burial place for a Crusader, dated to between 1248-1267 CE. What piqued my interest was the sword depicted in the sculpture, which is Chinese in appearance. It was fascinating to see actual proof of the exchange of items between Europe and Asia during that period. The ‘umra certificate from 1433 CE, which belonged to Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri, fascinated me because it emphasized just how important pilgrimage was and perhaps continues to be in the Islamic tradition. Going on the Hajj to Mecca had a direct impact on a Muslim’s social standing and warranted adding the honorific al-Hajj or al-Hajjah to one’s name. The ‘umra scroll shows that pilgrimage to areas in and around Jerusalem were nearly as important and warranted their being added to a certificate that could be displayed when the pilgrim returned home.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is definitely worth attending. It shows the central importance that Jerusalem played to a huge range of areas between 1000 and 1400, with items on display from Africa, Europe, Persia, and various places in the Middle East. It would be nice if there were translations of the texts on display, or if the languages being shown were at least clearly labeled. The grouping of the items could have been somewhat clearer as well, either chronologically or thematically. On the other hand, the items were displayed in a way that made them easy to view and appreciate. It is definitely a worthwhile way to spend an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.

Bible in Pop Culture Week 4: In El Salvador, “Jacob wrestled the angel / And the angel was overcome”

 

 

U2 - Bullet The Blue Sky(Rattle & Hum)

The track “Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2 was released in 1987 on the album “The Joshua Tree.” The lyrics of the song were inspired by a trip that Bono took to Central America in 1985 with Amnesty International. On the trip, he stayed in the mountains in the north of the country with a group of guerilla fighters. While he was in the hills, he witnessed Salvadorean planes firebombing villages nearby in an attempt to kill guerilla fighters. Officially, the U.S. was acting in an advisory role in El Salvadore to strengthen the military dictatorship running the country as a bulwark against Communism. What this meant in practical terms was that the U.S. government was supplying arms, munitions, tactical advice and often manpower that led directly the tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

Bono, who described himself as a person who regularly read Scripture, was upset that Christians in America were supporting a proxy war that resulted in the devastation he was witnessing, so he penned the lyrics for “Bullet the Blue Sky” using Biblical references. A section of the lyrics reads as follows:

“In the howling wind comes a stinging rain / See it driving nails / Into the souls in the tree of pain / From a firefly, a red orange glow / See the face of fear / Running scared on the valley below / Bullet the blue sky / In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum / Jacob wrestled the angel / And the angel was overcome.”

The lyrics describe strafing runs and the dropping of napalm, as well as an interpretation of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel that seems to present the good, innocent villagers as the angel being overcome by man’s evil.

Bono Tells Story of U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky"

Sources: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=911 & the above video.

Reading Response re: The Nanjing Massacre

The Great Nanjing Massacre, Zi Jian Li, 1992

Image (above): The Great Nanjing Massacre, Zi Jian Li, 1992

 

Mitter, China’s War with Japan: 119-140.

Primary Source: “The Rape of Nanking: Bearing Witness, The Nanjing ‘Murder Race,’” in The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection (1999): 324-30.

Mark Eykholt, “Aggression, Victimization, and Chinese Historiography of the Nanjing Massacre,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (2000): 11-69.

Takashi Yoshida, “A Battle over History: The Nanjing Massacre in Japan,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (2000): 70-132.

 

The readings for this week center on the events that happened in Nanjing in 1937-1938 when the Japanese Army took control of the city. The Rape of Nanjing, or Nanjing Massacre, was an exceptional event in the war between Japan and China, not only because of the scope of death, destruction and trauma inflicted on the population, but also because of the impact the event has had on the national memories of both China and Japan. The event has become a symbol more than a real event, a tool used to express feelings of victimization and growing strength or, on the other side, a key battlefield in the definition of post-war Japanese identity.

One of the most interesting debates regarding Nanjing is why it happened in the first place, and this is unfortunately one of the debates that has received the least attention. Mitter presents some possible reasons, but they reveal an assumption that the Japanese military was out of control. This plays on the idea that there was a break down in control of the military by the civilian administration. The introduction to the primary source, on the other hand, posits the massacre as a preplanned and deliberate military policy. Eykholt somewhat supports this by stating that the idea of the military being out of control isn’t supported by the facts. The nature of the reported killings and the organized lootings speak to coordinated action. This seems like a more reasonable approach to the situation.

This, however, brings up the problem of responsibility. Who is responsible for what happened? Was blame placed where it should have been? The War Crimes trials, according to Eykholt, focused on American interests in the Pacific and some of the evidence may or may not have been accurate. It seems to have become a symbol for the entire conflict between the two nations and, like Eykholt and Takashi both argue, guilt and blame have dominated the discussion, preventing a real analysis of the events.