Who Are the Immigrants?

Mike Males, Youth Today, June 2006


“In time, the experience of the children of immigrants became the experience of all American children, who now were the representatives of a new culture living in a new age.” --Margaret Mead, 1970


When thousands of students first walked out of high schools in Salinas and Watsonville--and across California and America--to ignite what have become gargantuan protests against anti-immigration legislation, news reporters were primed to dismiss them as brainless teenage truants and troublemakers.

But the exuberance and thoughtful articulations of Latino students, drawing from the lessons of their parents’ 1960s Chicano-rights "blowouts" (celebrated in the film, Walkout), prevailed. Teens proved devastatingly well informed on the draconian congressional bills they opposed.

Excited students led reporters to their first-generation parents and grandparents, the backbone of California’s agricultural, domestic service, and labor economies, who showed up to support their kids. Teens translated questions for beaming elders. The scenes were so appealing even America’s youth-phobic media depicted them positively.

Youth-inspired Latino activism--"hoy marchamos, mañana votamos"--is nationwide. In my hometown, Oklahoma City, hardly a firebrand hotbed, a pro-immigrant rally drew 10,000.

These eruptions scare the established old, but they are crucial to America's evolution to a multiracial culture. Societies of rapid social and demographic change favor dynamic young people who are “at home in this time,”  Mead observed, rendering rigid elders “fettered to the past,” anachronistic “immigrants in time.”

The new and young harbor distinctly more adaptive values than the old. An Associated Press poll found two-thirds of 18-34 year-olds of all races supporting broad immigrant rights; older citizens were ambivalent or opposed.

The young age structure of Latin cultures, in particular, makes teens the center of political activism. They know passivity has not served Latinos well.

Mexican-Americans’ past efforts to quietly assimilate proved disastrous. Los Angeles’s 1940s “Zoot Suit Riots” actually consisted of vicious beatings of young Latinos by mobs of troops egged on by an openly racist press. Police vilified Latino “gangsters” (“descendants of the wild tribes of inner Mexico” with “an inborn desire to kill,” officials declared). Eleven “38th Street Gang” members were packed off to prison for 1942’s mysterious Sleepy Lagoon murder.

Determined not to perpetuate docility, tens of thousands of California’s Latino high schoolers called mass strikes in the 1960s’ “Blowouts” to protest the Vietnam War and education inequities, building a “Movimiento” that energized college campuses. “Lowrider” clubs combined colorful car parades with shrewd legal tactics to thwart cities’ early efforts to ban teens from public spaces, beginning with L.A.’s notorious 1968 anti-cruising ordinance targeting Whittier Boulevard.

Today, anti-immigrant extremism is provoking renewed Latino youth activism bearing epic potential to shake up an America sinking into callousness and social rift. But, one 16 year-old marcher grimaced, “the public school system teaches us very little” about “how to fight racism the right way.”

What is “the right way”? If Latino youth fulfill their placard manifesto to move from marching to voting, the politics of California and other states will change fast. In the 2005 election, ballot measures to harass teens seeking abortions and to restrict lobbying by labor unions lost only because burgeoning younger voters overruled older ones.

Over the next dozen years, as California’s older white population stagnates, 16-29-year-olds will leap by 20 percent, to 8.5 million. Three-fourths of that growth will be Latinos; another 12 percent, Asians.

If the self-destructive Democratic Party drops its mindless opposition to the National Youth Rights Association’s campaign to lower the voting age to 16, young constituencies will become even more pivotal.

Growth in youth activism, of which Latinos and NYRA now form the chief models, is crucial to our society’s survival. Every week brings renewed evidence of aging America’s destructive panics against the young. Policy makers strip rights and services from youth and inflict pointless repressions while piling up huge debts future generations must repay. Television and newspapers blare frenzied anti-youth alarms daily as reporters and the “experts” they quote abandon accuracy and ethics wholesale.

Even the National Research Council (once the gold standard for scholarship) succumbed to grotesquely anti-scientific hysteria. A 2006 NRC panel report, “Emerging Issues in the Science of Adolescence,” repackages century-old eugenics nonsense as cutting-edge scholarship. Featuring the University of Pittsburgh’s Ronald Dahl’s ignorant diatribe against “the tinderbox in the teenage brain,” the NRC panel ignored every real-life issue, from poverty, racism, and family abuse to the rising recklessness of their own middle-aged cohort that is far worse than anything adolescents bring.

Whether today’s youth activism develops into a vital counterforce to such backwards-looking dogma depends on how firmly the young hold on to their demands that America be a country of inclusion.


Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco, and teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.