Rodolfo F. Acuña | Northridge, CA | February 4, 2013
The National Committee for Protection of Foreign Born Workers was established in 1923 in reaction to the virulent xenophobia of a Republican Congress and President toward immigrant workers. The Committee also organized for the workers’ right to organize and strike. This campaign resulted in the Immigration Acts of 1921 and in 1924. The latter ushered in an era of racial engineering designed to keep America “American”, which meant not only white but northern European and Protestant.
The protection for the foreign born movement was not new – it dated back to the 1820s as church people sought to protect Irish workers and their families. Over the years it became part of progressive thinking in the United States.
The American Dream was different in the nineteenth century. The meaning of what constitutes an American was more narrowly defined. The suffragette movement and birth control was part of a dream for equality for women, but it also harbored the dreams of a white and Protestant America. But even then, a progressive strain existed within these movements that had a broader and more inclusive and humane vision.
For example, twenty years ago I had the honor of staying at the Alma Mathews House in New York. It was part of a women’s settlement house movement and the activists would go down to the docks to meet the boatloads of immigrants. They would compete with the pimps and take young girls to the house and give them free lodging until they could get jobs.
Mainstream labor at first did not seek to accommodate the immigrant; its American dream was all white. Indeed, the Western Federation of Miners that had a progressive reputation discriminated against and excluded Mexican workers. The protection of foreign workers regardless of race fell almost solely on the Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. Wobblies.
For progressives, the struggle for human rights gradually became as much a part of labor struggles as economic rights.
The protection for the foreign born movement is much larger today, and along with the third-wave feminist and the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movements, it focuses the fight on human rights. The Dream Act struggle formally began nationally on April 25, 2001 when Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) introduced the “Immigrant Children’s Educational Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act of 2001.” But it is much older, and has come a long way since that time. Ownership today belongs to the Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants.
I support these three movements, although I have questions about the American Dream. When gays demanded access to ROTC, I asked why? I have the same feeling about women demanding the right to fight in combat. Currently there are some Dreamers who are asking for the right to join the armed forces. In every case, it is part of the American Dream – of being American – of trying to prove you are an American. I wonder if this should be so, especially if the American Dream includes an imperialist foreign policy.
It is baffling that these targets of discrimination believe in the American Dream when so many of us who are citizens are disillusioned with it. Someone would say we are pessimistic or that we have suffered a loss of nationalism – maybe so!
Some people exist on dreams. It is natural for human beings to want a better life – that is why we have revolutions. Everyone, whether they are brown or white, wants a better life.
Fashion magazines, the media, and motion pictures have constructed the American Dream. The United States has the material trappings that most of the rest of the world lacks.
It is similar to what Carey McWilliams calls the “Fantasy heritage” – the mystique surrounding California. John Steven McGroarty in Mission Memories (1929) wrote, “California was the happiest land the world had ever known. There was peace and plenty, and hospitality became a religion. Song and laughter filled the sunny mornings.” Magazines and the movies popularized this “American apotheosis.”
According to geographer Don Mitchell, the myth created a disconnection between image and reality. Mitchell used a scene from The Grapes of Wrath to demonstrate his point: The Joads traveling from Oklahoma through inhospitable land reach the crest of the Tehachapi Pass and looked down at the San Joaquin Valley – the California Eden.
Pa Joad: “I never knowed there was anything like her.” Ma Joad: “Thank God! The fambly’s here.” They drive on down into the valley. As they get closer they see the suffering families of all races: Starving children; suffering of the workers; discrimination.
The “Fantasy heritage” that McWilliams talks about is the selective appropriation of historical fact. Instruments of oppression such as the missions and ranchos are romanticized. It is as if Hollywood were writing history.