Chapter 8: Central Americans: Intervention Comes Home to Roost
Gonzales notes that before the 1980s Central American immigrants seldom settled in the US. He argues that US-instigated conflicts in the region during that decade contributed to the influx of migrants who fled their home countries. Much like their special treatment of Cubans, US immigration policies gave favorable refugee status to Nicaraguans while denying the same to Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
Gonzalez explains that while devastating poverty permeates the region, the majority of immigrants hail from the three war-torn countries named above. The American public’s lack of information about its country’s goals for intervening in Central American politics coupled with a sharp divide between rich and poor allowed the violence to wreak havoc on the region’s people.
In Nicaragua, the US-backed Somoza dictatorship toppled after the regime confiscated international relief supplies, which were given in response to a devastating earthquake in 1972. The Sandinista National Liberation Front rose to power after Somoza’s ouster, and the Carter administration in the US tried to cooperate with the new government. However, the election of President Reagan brought a dramatic shift. Covertly led by General Oliver North, the US military supplied former Somoza supporters—now calling themselves the Contras—with weapons in order to topple the Sandinista regime, in turn causing many Nicaraguans to flee northward.
In El Salvador, civil war has an even longer history, dating back to the massacre of Pipil Indian peasants in the 1930s under the leadership of dictator Hernandez, another jefe propped up by the US government. Hernandez was allowed to reign until a popular uprising in 1944. But seizing control in his place was an oligarchy rife with internal conflict amongst the country’s wealthiest families. The ensuing governmental instability and economic inequality forced thousands of Salvadorans to neighboring Honduras for work. Mounting tensions between the two countries led to a week-long conflict at the border, after which many Salvadorans were deported back home.
This created more problems in the country, as massive demonstrations by disempowered and unemployed Salvadorans ended in government-sanctioned massacres via death squads. Gonzalez interrupts his narrative of the Salvadoran wars to discuss the transformation of the Catholic Church in Central America. He says that after the Second Vatican Council, Catholic leaders became more interested in social activism, providing a place for Salvadorans to organize themselves.
As a result of the Church’s support, Salvadoran citizens began participating in democratic elections at unprecedented rates, only for the ruling oligarchy to rig the elections or stage coups with the help of the US National Guard. After the oligarchy made a particularly egregious grab for power in 1979, Salvadoran citizens organized themselves into guerilla groups, igniting a civil war that would last decades. Despite its permitting death squads to kill a Catholic bishop, the oligarchy received billions in aid from the US, who argued that this corrupt government was the only force against communism.
In Guatemala, the US used its influence to secure the interests of the United Fruit Company (UFCO), a banana growing operation owned by Anglos. Under fascist President Ubico, Guatemala allowed the UFCO to monopolize the land and maximize profits, in exchange for American money. After Ubico was forced to resign, Guatemalans elected the democratic socialist Arevalo, whose programs helped the poor classes for six years. Arevalo’s successor, Arbenz wanted to further Arevalo’s liberal ideas.
Angering the UFCO and its investors in the US, Arbenz designed a redistribution program in which unused agricultural lands would be divided evenly among the landless peasantry. Over 600,000 acres of this land belonged to UFCO, and Arbenz agreed to pay the company according to...
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a $1.2 million appraisal rather than the $16 million UFCO demanded. Because of this, the US launched an operation to replace Arbenz with another dictator of their choice.
The US chose Castilo, a colonel, and supplied him with troops trained in Nicaragua under Somoza’s rule. Castilo swiftly awarded UFCO its land rights and instituted policies that further punished the poor. At the same time, Castilo maintained power using ruthless violence as a constant threat. Over the next thirty years, 75,000 Guatemalans were killed, with another 120,000 fleeing to Mexico. Despite the prolonged bloodshed, the Guatemalan wars received virtually no attention from foreign press.
After various public outcries for the discriminatory immigration policies that affected Salvadorans and Guatemalans—bolstered by the Catholic Church, the Sanctuary movement, and coalitions of legal immigrants from Central America—the US changed its strict detention, deportation, and asylum denial practices. When the Immigration Reform Control Act (IRCA) passed in 1986, illegal immigrants who were already in the country were granted amnesty.
Throughout the early 1990s, Central American communities in the United States began fighting for better treatment from Anglo society. This led to greater involvement in politics. Increased organization in the political realm trickled over to unionization among Central American workers. Gonzalez concludes the chapter with an explanation of Central American immigrants’ permeation of small-town America, as businesses recruited undocumented workers from cities.
Gonzalez also suggests that the Central American immigrant boom has contributed to the development of a Latino “mosaic,” in which each ethnic group maintains its unique cultural identity yet is bound together by a shared language.
Chapter 9: Colombians and Panamanians: Overcoming Division and Disdain
Gonzalez depicts the Colombian and Panamanian immigrant experience through two separate families who immigrated to the United States at roughly the same time period.
Monica Manderson (née White) was the West Indian daughter of two migrants from the Virgin Islands who settled in the Canal Zone to work on the US contract in Panama. West Indian workers, who were mostly black, were segregated from white canal workers and paid lower wages. Outside the Canal Zone, West Indians faced discrimination from the Spanish-speaking Panamanians. Dissatisfied with the racism she experienced both inside and outside the Canal Zone, Manderson left Panama for the United States in 1957.
Her son, Vicente White, joined Manderson a few years later, after growing disillusioned with his police job that forced him to arrest innocent Panamanians. Unlike his mother, White spoke Spanish thanks to his Panamanian schooling. While Manderson noticed some dislike between West Indian immigrants and African Americans, White maintains that there was not much division between the two groups in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where many West Indians settled.
In Colombia, a bloody civil war between the Liberal and Conservative parties known as La Violencia pushed rural peasants into urban areas like Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali during the 1940s. The Mendez family, one such rural peasant family, settled in Cali, sending its sons to a local school that required its pupils to learn a trade.
By the 1960s, a second civil war had erupted throughout the countryside between left-wing guerrilla groups and the government, while rival gangs fought for control over the burgeoning cocaine market in the cities. As a result, Colombia became the murder capital of the Western Hemisphere. While the Mendez sons had secured decent jobs thanks to their education, they gradually left for the US beginning in 1964.
The Mendez brothers opened a successful print shop in Jackson Heights, the Colombian neighborhood in New York. Like the Mendezes, many of the first Colombian immigrants were middle-class, educated workers who established local businesses. As violence between the government, drug cartels, and guerrilla groups escalated in Colombia, more immigrants—many of whom were smuggled into the country illegally—flocked to the US.
Eventually, the warring drug cartels of Cali and Medellín fought for control over the American market, attacking each other in Colombian colonias. After two prominent Colombian immigrant businessmen—Pedro Mendez included—were murdered, the community pushed back against the cartels’ influence, reestablishing an order that allowed them to flourish as one of the most prosperous Latino groups in the United States.