May 02, 2008

El derecho de vuelta

I suppose it's because of a spasm of nostalgia that has seized me in the wake of the creation of an alumni website for my high school, but I've been giving more thought to this curious phenomenon of "shifting frames" which confounds our ability to comprehend contemporary reality in, well..., real terms. I think I will call this effect "age parallax" because it's kind of cool to create a term and it sounds erudite as all hell, don't you think? Parallax: "Simply put, it is the apparent shift of an object against the background that is caused by a change in the observer's position. The term is derived from the Greek παραλλαγή (parallagé), meaning alteration".

So, sifting around in old pictures of elementary school classes, in a Northern California suburb where I lived in the 1950s, I found one of a fourth grade class circa 1958. There was nothing special about the subdivision where I grew up, nothing special about the school, nor the weather, nor anything at all, really. It was one of those places thrown up during the post-War building boom on land "reclaimed" from San Francisco Bay (filled in, in other words), and the houses were stuffed up with families as fast as the homes could be tacked together. There was no history or lore associated with this subdivision, laid out on a wavy grid of dog-legged streets, nothing like the colorful associations of old neighborhoods on the East Coast. They were utilitarian and abstract, as opposed to organic. It's special in our memories only because it's where we came of age.

So in that picture there are 30 students, boys and girls. Every single student is white, the teacher is white and matronly, and everyone looks clean and presentable, in that Eisenhower Era way. Looking for a picture of the school on the Internet, to post on the alumni site, I found instead a description of all schools in the city, including demographic composition. For my old elementary school, I found the following. The school is now 12% white, 5% black, 5% Asian/Chinese, a smattering of South Seas (Tongan, Samoan, mainly)...and 65% Hispanic. This shouldn't be that surprising, really. California is about 40% Hispanic/Latino, and those are just the official numbers. My old neighborhood represents a good entrance-level domicile for immigrants, as perhaps the Lower East Side of Manhattan did in another era. It's down at heels now, the curbs crowded with cars, comprised of houses that probably had a useful life of 50 years when they were built and have now been around more than 60. Much of California was built that way, including vast tracts of older Southern California neighborhoods, constructed only to endure the mild California winters, light wood frame construction, asphalt shingle roofs -- it all starts going to hell after a few decades, but it starts becoming "affordable," in the California sense, as a kind of makeshift low income housing.

It behooves us Anglos to remember that America, as a First World nation, is unique in sharing such a long, essentially unguarded border with a Third World country. Look around the globe; you won't find many comparable situations. And unlike the tribal grounds of the Native Americans, whom we mostly exterminated with disease and war, the land we stole from its Mexican owners (who in turn had displaced the California Indians) remains adjacent to a large population of the relatives of the Californios, the people we stole it from. Such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau (remember his night in jail?) protested the war with Mexico as an unjustified war of aggression, carried out under the fig leaf of Manifest Destiny, whatever the hell that means. It began with the Texas rebellion, supported by Southerners who wanted another slave state to add to their side. There's the glory of the Alamo for you. It then opportunistically spread, about a decade later, to California and the rest of the Southwest, and the United States, at long last, stretched from sea to shining sea.

It would appear that our Mexican neighbors have been exercising a kind of ad hoc derecho de vuelta - a "right of return." No one knows how many Hispanics are actually in California illegally. In a way it doesn't matter, because they're not going anywhere. They're an integral part of life in the Golden State, even if I sometimes miss the full impact of that phenomenon because of age parallax.

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