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.