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    Immigration debate spotlights difficult history for Latinos

    After their decisive role in the presidential election, Latinos stand at the threshold of a new acceptance in the United States. The surprising energy behind immigration reform, displayed last week at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, suggests that this country might at long last welcome those who come to this country speaking Spanish.

    The conventional wisdom is that Latinos are just the latest round of newcomers, as President Obama put it in Las Vegas, to “face hardship . . . racism . . . ridicule.” If reform now opens wider paths to legal status and citizenship, well, that’s akin to what “each new wave of immigrants” has gone through before, right? “It’s really important for us to remember our history,” the president said.

    It is true that, apart from native peoples, all Americans descend from onetime newcomers. But it is wrong to think Latinos are trodding a path well worn by groups that precede them. The venom of contemporary hostility toward “aliens,” a catch-all category of anti-Latino contempt, points to a larger pathology that transcends the Republican Party, connected as much to the nation’s future as its past.


    After all, 2010 was a demographic tipping point, with more US children born to minorities than to whites. Census projections expect Latinos to be a quarter of the US population by 2050, when whites will be a minority. Status anxiety underlies much of the nation’s uneasiness about these newcomers.

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    But Latinos are uniquely burdened by America’s past, too. Only in recent years has this nation acknowledged that African history and slave history are relevant to the civil rights of blacks. An equivalent reckoning with history must be accomplished for Latinos.

    Today’s immigration controversy involves Spanish-surnamed people originating mainly in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, but also in other parts of Latin America. One reason the word “Hispanics” is in disfavor is that these folks are not from Spain, and the word deletes their Indian or mixed-race heritage. But Spain is where the American problem begins.

    The early English settlers in the New World inherited the bifurcated imagination of an English empire that defined itself for a decisive century against the mortal threat of Spain. The year 1588 became a marker when ocean storms saved the British Isles from the Spanish Armada — and classes at Oxford and Cambridge from being taught in Spanish. The fear of that threat crossed the ocean on the Mayflower and Arbella. Long before the word was coined, Latinos were the rivals against whom English speakers in America defined their early identity. The heirs of those English “settlers” would long distinguish themselves from “immigrants” — the genesis of “us” versus “them.”

    The psychological and political contest with Spain was reinvigorated by Manifest Destiny, an inevitably anti-Mexican movement of Anglo settlers to the West, culminating in the 1848 war — whose burdensome legacy is little recognized on this side of the Rio Grande. Subsequent wars between the United States and Spain, and in former Spanish colonies (the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba) were mere prelude to the crippling exploitation of Latin America that fueled a US economic boom throughout the 20th century. Under numerous corporation-friendly Latin dictators sponsored by Washington, savagely unjust social structures evolved throughout the southern half of the Western Hemisphere. Legions of “aliens” who have made their way north, even to this day, are in flight from the punishment inflicted by those same US-enabled social structures.


    Today, most of the nations of Latin America have growing economies, yet the region is marked by the most dramatic social inequality in the world. Climate migration, mass urbanization, drug violence, and corruption together destroy the hopes both of landless peasants and of residents of vast makeshift slums. Against common stereotypes, those Latinos who succeed at border crossing are determined survivors — men, women, and children with tremendous nerve, courage, and resilience.

    Latinos face prejudice unlike what greeted other immigrants, yet, as Obama suggested, they have begun to transcend those barriers. Already Latinos are creating the new America. Immigration reform must balance conflicting rights, and honor limits, but history poses its own challenge to justice. Latinos carry the weight of a dark legacy, long inflicted from here. That, too, must be part of the overdue reckoning.

    James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.