Backtalk

INALIENABLE RIGHTS

Richard Rodriguez's beautifully written and moving essay ("Go North, Young Man," July/August) is, of course, the vision of a poet rather than a political commentator, much less a mundane economic journalist. that's why he shows no interest in the central, if accidental, role of U.S. Government policy in periodically allowing the legal and illegal influx from Mexico, while at the same time choking off skilled immigration in general and European immigration in particular.

Rodriguez's poetic eye does not note that poorer Americans are being displaced and that Americans are beginning to leave California. But without the systematic evidence of the blue-collar "flight from diversity" developed by University of Michigan demographer William Frey from the 1990 census, it's hard to comprehend the magnitude of this extraordinary assault on California's working class.

Nor, of course, does Rodriguez concern himself with Mexico's virtual ban on immigration from the United States. "Seeing the hemisphere whole" involves a one-way window. But he's absolutely right about one thing. If immigration continues out of control and eventually undermines the American nation-state, we will all be reduced to the status of dispossessed Mexican peasants.

Peter Brimelow, Author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster
New York, N.Y.

Richard Rodriguez responds: Peter Brimelow's recent book on immigration, despite a witty title, Alien Nation, and its author's pretense to economic journalism, rests on a crude, racist premise: America is white. At one point in his book, Brimelow worries aloud. What will happen when his now-infant son (blond, blue-eyed) grows up to find himself surrounded by Hispanics?

I want to be around in 20 years when the kid brings home a Guatemalan girlfriend to meet the old man.

In the meantime, I would extend Brimelow's point: I think today's immigrants and their children are outperforming the native-born at the University of California as well as on the construction site. The problem population, I predict, will turn out to be the native-born, rather than the immigrant. Otherwise, Brimelow is correct about Mexico. The interesting thing is that peasants began violating Mexican propriety by their journey northward early in this century when postrevolution Mexico tried to seal itself off from the United States. Peasants forced an internationalism on Mexico--a point I made in my piece.

All over the world now, peasants are on the move. They are trampling borders. They are assuming the same freedom of movement that middle-class tourists and business executives assume. They are assuming for themselves the sort of freedom Peter Brimelow, originally of England, then briefly of Canada, now an American, assumes for himself and his son.

MORE ON IMMIGRATION

"Go north, young man"--that's exactly what I did when the war, supported by U.S. tax dollars, choked my family out of El Salvador. I was only 12 when I crossed the border; the same night John Lennon died.

In 1980, without having read enough Salvadoran history or completely mastered the Spanish language, I began a journey in Los Angeles; nothing like the one pictured back in Central America: Disneyland and movie stars--beaches and automobiles. Instead, I began a history of silence, broken Spanish and well-spoken English ( a new language out of fear of being deported). In secondary schools, I was called Mexican for being brown, Puerto Rican for mispronouncing the letter "r" when speaking Spanish; worst of all, nobody believed I was from El Salvador. I was too tall and light-skinned.

In 1992, after the peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador, looking for a home or some sort of rebirth. Instead, I found a city in crumbles, aged in the distance. People downtown called me a capitalist and a traitor for fleeing El Salvador. I, along with El Salvador, had changed. I was looking for a childhood feeling that was no longer there. I was looking for home, but that home hung in the sky somewhere between Los Angeles and El Salvador.

I returned to Los Angeles, knowing more Salvadorans had left El Salvador to start communities, not only in the Southwest, New York City, and Washington, D.C., but Germany, Australia, Mexico City, and Argentina. These great revolutionaries who left and changed El Salvador took a step toward the future: the world as a home.

After reading the article by Rodriguez, I found myself writing many of the same thoughts on this letter. I found myself remembering, hurting, crossing countries, memories, and dreams, looking ahead with hope.

I am the son of the guerrilla who left the country. I am the seed of Cortez and Atlacatl. I am the Immigrant. I am "el Cipitio" in Los Angeles. To all my relations, border crossing is an act of survival and hope.

William Archila
Arleta, Calif.

Rodriguez brilliantly analyzes the passing of the "blond myth" of California as a Hollywood backdrop built for nomadic Okies and New Yorkers. Good riddance. As an inspiration for American "mestizaje," blond California and Ellis Island alike are less relevant than the new Southern California Rodriguez celebrates--or, for that matter, an older West Texas that, for all its racism, was as much Mexican as Euro-American in its folk culture. Generations before the sushi taco, Mexican-Americans and German immigrants in Texas created a hybrid music style, "conjunto." The archetypal "American" symbol is the Texan cowboy, also known as the Mexican "vaquero."

At the beginning of this century, Jose Vasconcelos, a Mexican of European descent, prophesied the fusion of races in a new, high-tech Latin American society stretching from the

Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. Rodriguez, an American of Mexican Indian descent, knows better. He is right to agree with Vasconcelos that the catalysts in the ultimate melting pot will be the Indians and mestizos of Meso-America.

But Rodriguez understands that the most important blending of cultures and races in this hemisphere is taking place in North America, from the isthmus of Panama to the Arctic Ocean. Mexico and the United States--not Mexico and Brazil or Argentina--are locked in a "Schicksalsgemeinschaft," a community of fate.

Michael Lind, Author of The Next American Nation
New York, N.Y.

Of the word "American," Rodriguez writes: "Latin Americans have long complained that the gringo, with characteristic arrogance, hijacked the word "American' and gave it all to himself--the way he stole the land.'... "Listen,' my Mexican aunt told me, "people who live in the United States are norteamericanos.'"

Resentment of "americano" as a word for Americans seems rather a learned response among Mexicans: It is more common among the better educated and most common on the left. Choosing awkwardness over arrogance, when speaking Spanish I almost always use "estadounidense," the adjectival form of "Estados Unidos" (United States), rather than "americano." When speaking English, however, I refuse to refer to my own nationality as "North American." This solecism has only caught on (and, at that, only among the politically correct) because, inconveniently, English has no equivalent for estadounidense, no "Unitedstatesian."

Rodriguez sees Mexico's looming post-NAFTA identity crisis over "just what exactly it means that she [sic] is, with the dread gringo, a norteamericana." This is a matter I recently took up with her personally.

"Estimada senorita Mexico," I asked, "are you North American?"

"Of course not," she replied haughtily. "I am Mexico."

"Si, senorita," I asked, "but if, as Mexico, you are not North American, are you South American?"

"Pues, no," she said, furrowing her brow prettily.

"Are you then...Central American?"

"Ay, no!" she cried, recoiling in horror at the very notion.

A talented reporter from the liberal Mexico City daily La Jornada told me during a period he spent in residence at the Los Angeles Times, that the border between Mexico and Guatemala makes an interesting contrast with the border between the United States and Mexico. It is not just that the Mexicans are rather more aggressive in keeping Guatemalans out of Mexico than the Americans are in keeping Mexicans out of the United States, he said. It is also that, from the point of view of very many Mexicans, including left-leaning Mexicans like himself, cultural exchange across the northern border seems natural and familiar, as Rodriguez also observes, while cultural exchange across the southern border is so alien as to be virtually unthinkable. Despite myriad empirical similarities between their country and Guatemala, Mexicans are far more inclined to "think north" than to "think south."

"Senorita," I sigh as she summarily ends our interview, "if you are not North American, then you must be Central American. But if you have no intention of being Central American, then you are North American. Disculpe me, sneorita. Lo siento mucho."

Jack Miles, Author of God: A Biography
Pasadena, Calif.

MYTH UNMAKING

Katharine Greider ("Crackpot Ideas," July/August) attempts to explore the problems associated with the evolution of the "crack-baby" scare, but falls prey to an incomplete analysis of the facts.

Our earliest studies never attempted to describe any type of specific syndrome attributable to prenatal cocaine or crack exposure. We stressed the multidrug exposure of the children, the harmful environments in which they lived, and the overriding difficulties plaguing any attempt to study the human condition. If anything, I was cited for being overly optimistic about the positive impact of early intervention rather than being as [Greider writes] "the rather pessimistic authority on what happens to babies whose mothers use cocaine."

In fact, Ellen Goodman's 1992 Boston Globe article that questioned the reality of "crack babies" was based on our follow-up article on children at 2 years of age, which showed that overall cognitive development of children prenatally exposed to cocaine or crack is normal when controlled for environmental factors.

There is a pendulum on which the media has tended to swing--from "doomed crack babies" stories to the "myth of crack babies." The truth lies somewhere in between.

Children prenatally exposed to crack, cocaine, alcohol, heroin, marijuana, and/or a myriad of other substances may in fact do quite well or they may suffer the consequences of their mother's or father's addiction, through both biological and environmental factors.

Ira J. Chasnoff, M.D.
President, National Association for Families and Addiction Research and Education Chicago, Ill.

As someone who wrote that there were, at most, from 35,000 to 50,000 drug-exposed babies when Ira Chasnoff was claiming that there were 387,000, I am always pleased to see an article that tries to set the record straight.

Unfortunately, I fear that Greider has gone too far in the opposite direction. At a time when pregnant middle-class women shun even coffee, we do risk the creation of a group of severely compromised young children. That they are mostly the children of disadvantaged minorities only makes the situation more troubling.

Douglas J. Besharov
Resident Scholar American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

Reading this article reminded me of the hysteria of [the "crack-baby" scare], which I was very glad to leave behind. Greider is to be complimented.

However, this article also reminded me that the view of cocaine-exposed children held by most of the public, including professionals--pediatricians, social workers, policymakers--remains what the media created at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s. When the story of the "crack baby" began to be less simplistic and to require more thought and effort, most of the media moved on to the next good story.

Regrettably, the public and most health professionals were left uninformed, so that the children who are born into families where cocaine, heroin, and alcohol are abused are still stigmatized. Meanwhile, their real social and emotional needs are being ignored.

Claire D. Coles, Ph.D.
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Ga.

Greider's overall description is one I support. The next question--the big question--is why did this hysteria over crack and "bad crack mamas" rise and persist?

The crack epidemic began toward the end of Reagan's first term with the slashing of the social net and accompanying mass homelessness, poverty, and rise of infectious diseases.

Simultaneously, the anti-abortion movement went strongly on the offensive. Their domination of the public conversation led to the delegitimization of abortion and also to public familiarity with the notion that pregnant women are so selfish that, at times, their disregard for their fetus has to be constrained by outside intervention.

The irreversible damage ascribed to their conduct during pregnancy cast them as villains and justified no further public spending on remediation. It was so successful that it has spread to encompass all poor women (not just marginalized and deviant addicts). This same sleight of hand now presents welfare "reform" grant reductions as efforts to save children.

The crack-using mothers of the '80s served as the canaries in the coal mine.

Wendy Chavkin, M.D., M.P.H.
Beth Israel Medical Center
New York, N.Y.

WALLERSTEIN'S ALTAR EGO

Judith Wallerstein ("The Good Marriage?" July/August) is certainly correct that the collapse both of older coercions and of traditional support systems has made marriage more fragile, requiring couples to work harder at nurturing their relationships. Her insistence that a good marriage requires flexibility, choice, and creation of patterns rather than attempts to reproduce old ones provides welcome contrast to much contemporary discussion of marital commitment.

But Wallerstein is overly nonchalant about the way conservatives use her work. She has lent her name, for example, to the Institute for American Values and the National Fatherhood Initiative. Spokespeople for these groups have demanded the "restigmatization" of divorce and single motherhood.

They also advocate "attitude" changes as a substitute for job creation, childcare, and family leave programs that could make relationships more stable. If Wallerstein wants people to benefit from her research, she should clearly explain why it does not lead to such conclusions.

Wallerstein also ignores the socio-economic variations, ethnic differences, and social networks beyond the marital relationship. Even were it true, as she claims, that "the psychological tasks of marriage...apply across the board," class, race, and community circumstances distribute very different opportunities and obstacles to completing those tasks.

Working conditions affect married life far more than vice versa. Yet Wallerstein does not address the economic, social, and workplace support systems that different families need. Her notion that marriage is the only refuge from the loneliness of modern life, and that "what you do with it is your whole adulthood," cedes too much to the narrowing of personal identity, social obligation, and intergenerational commitment that has simultaneously made marriage loom so large in our psychic yearnings and totter so precariously in our everyday lives.

Stephanie Coontz, Author of The Way We Never Were
Olympia, Wash.

I wonder what the divorce rate would be if this country were to adopt marriage-friendly policies such as subsidized childcare, flextime, paid parental leave, a guaranteed income, and the like. All the research conducted by self-proclaimed experts can't dig up anything as profound as the simple fact that most marital dissolutions have an economic element to them. Neither deregulation nor denial will change that.

Wallerstein says she thinks "the family is here to stay." Duh. What is really at issue is whether it will be because of, or in spite of, government policy.

Martin D. Hughes
Somerville, Mass.

WHAT'S A MOTHER TO DO?

Mother Jones injures its credibility in its pious hope that Bill Clinton's heart really beats fast for the common folk, but that he's been frustrated in coming to full flower as a true liberal Democrat due to bad advice or blind ambition. This tired line is restated in Eric Alterman's article on Labor Secretary Robert Reich ("The Reich Stuff," July/August).

Clinton has always known that international capitalism is the butter for his political bread. In 1992 he gave the finger to Jerry Brown, who asked him to limit campaign contributions to $100. He fought like a mad dog for NAFTA. Mother Jones seems to hold out hope for Clinton, like a faithful mom demonstrating loyalty for her hopelessly wayward son ("he's really such a good boy").

It's a dismal commentary on the state of democratic liberalism.

D.J. Casey
Bonita, Calif.