UCI Prof Héctor Tobar Writes on Immigration, Whiteness

Héctor Tobar photo: fourandsixty/Wikimedia Commons

Héctor Tobar, a professor English and Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, has a brilliant new essay in the July 29, 2019 issue of the New Yorker. It’s on the weird but chilling parallel of his early life as the child of Guatemalan immigrants in Los Angeles with that of James Earl Ray, the white supremacist assassin who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., who for a time lived next door to his family.

“I did not see that the brick and stucco apartment blocks around me were a magnet for American drifters, like those Jack Kerouac describes in ‘On the Road,’ recently arrived in what he called ‘the loneliest and most brutal of American cities,'” Tobar writes. “I had no idea that one of them, a hard man named James Earl Ray, lived on the other side of our back-yard fence.”

Tobar’s piece is a story of two people trying to find their way in a nation of rapidly changing demographics. One, himself, is a Latino trying to achieve social equality, while the other, Ray, commits murder in a feeble attempt to maintain power.

“For James Earl Ray, his whiteness meant that he deserved better than what he had,” Tobar writes. “His perception of African-Americans as impoverished, diminished people made the color of his skin a source of power in a dismal life.”

That the “whiteness” Ray was struggling to maintain was itself an arbitrary construct makes his ultimate crime that much more tragic (Tobar writes that his birth certificate lists his parents as “Caucasian”). But virtually everything about the right’s obsession with immigration today is arbitrary–their hated “open borders” were, in fact, the status quo, even when Irish immigrants came in huge numbers in the mid-19th century. Though controversial, they eventually became “white.” But not the Chinese–in 1880, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, forbidding immigrants from China from entering the U.S. Today’s demonization of immigrants from Central and South America is just more of the same, regardless of the hardships they’re trying to escape:

The multigenerational traumas caused by poverty, ethnic hatred, and emigration have long been a feature of American life, from the Irish famine of the eighteen-forties and the Great Migration of Southern blacks after the First World War all the way up to the present day, with the targeting of Mexican “rapists” and Muslims. As a university professor in Southern California, I see my students grapple with their families’ journeys from Latin America to the United States, writing essays and reported stories with beautiful scenes and strange twists: a starry night in a Guatemalan rain forest, a winning poker hand in a Los Angeles park. One student began a portrait of her mother with the sentence “At the age of five, she sold tamales from her porch.” Like me, my students are waiting for time to unlock the mysteries at the core of their existence: an illiterate grandmother, parents who retain their ability to love in the face of need, violence, and separation.

It’s a haunting piece, both thoughtful and brutal. Though it’s concerned with events and people in the past, the racism that underlies it all has never gone away. I wonder sometimes if it will ever go away.

“I used to think the term ‘white supremacy’ referred to a mass movement from the previous centuries, and to a marginal group of people in the present—men in white hoods, essentially,” Tobar writes. “Now I see it as a lingering strand in the American psyche, shaping how strangers see people like me.”

Click here to read Tobar’s New Yorker piece.

Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.

5 Replies to “UCI Prof Héctor Tobar Writes on Immigration, Whiteness”

  1. Democrat 2020 Platform & Goals:
    -Open Borders.
    -Sanctuary Cities.
    -Decriminalize illegal entry into our country.
    -De-fund & terminate Border Patrol & ICE
    –Same sex marriages.
    -Disarming Americans.
    -End all deportations of illegal aliens (if you get here, you stay.)
    -Infanticide.
    -Voting rights for illegal aliens.
    -Pack the courts with radical liberal judges (Like the 9th circuit)
    -Increase refugee’s from the third world.
    -Illegal aliens allowed to hold public office.
    -Socialism.
    -Free Abortions for all (Taxpayer funded)
    -The green new deal.
    -End of Electoral College
    -Free Medicare care for all including non citizens (taxpayer funded)
    -Raise Minimum Wage (expect massive reduction in full time jobs & loss of health benefits)
    -Adolescents vote.
    -!00% free college for all, including non citizens. (tax payer funded)
    -Reparations for every rac “harmed” by the white man.
    -Convicts, Terrorists voting.
    -Susie & Bobby using the same restrooms.
    -Late term abortions up to 9 months.
    -Tax increases.
    -Pay check for every person in the US even if they choose not to work.

    *Sources: Straight from the Democrat’s themselves. View their speeches / debates on you tube. Pay particular attention to when the moderator asks the candidates to “raise your hand” if in favor questions.

    The choice is yours.

    1. I came to this country in 1967 escaping a dictatorship and graduated from UCI in 1972. I stood out of the graduation ceremonies protesting the UCI policy not to allow a black couple from the south into the dormitories. Racism then, racism now in different forms. My parents and siblings did not come with language skills, no degrees, no money,….
      Accept the poor and illiterate ho will work hard and make America stronger.

      1. I totally agree!! The issue is not about immigration but Illegal immigration…you cannot walk across the border an expect to receive all of the benefits a legal immigrant receives…I hope this makes sense…There is no way the USA can accept droves of people coming here without an orderly system.
        How can an illegal immigrant ever get ahead if they cannot get a SS# and work legally…they will be taken advantage of by all the businesses paying them less then minimum under the table….how will they ever get health benefits if they are not documented in the system…
        The USA welcomes all immigrants if they follow the rules of entering the country. My wife spent almost a year in a refuge camp to come here…the South Americans seem to think they can just walk over the border with out a sponsor or paper work.

  2. The title is misleading, it should read: “UCI PROF HÉCTOR TOBAR WRITES A PROPAGANDA HITPIECE”

    Reading this statist fluff, one would be likely to forget about the 1999 civil case verdict, accepted by MLK jr’s family, which exonerated James Earl Ray. Instead, all the extensive research and evidence to reach that verdict is set aside and wrapped neatly in an “us vs them” false dichotomy used to race bait and fuel fears in the minorities reading this trash.

    Besides directly spitting in the face of the King family, who found the verdict fair and considers James Earl Ray a victim, this essay serves as a way to further widen a schism between minorities and caucasians by implying there is no form of unison and everyone beyond Hector Tobar’s metaphorical fence is a gun toting racist threatened by Tobar’s skin color.

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