But over the past few decades, [Leo] Chavez, a 57-year-old anthropology professor at UC Irvine, has watched with alarm as portrayal of Latinos has pervaded popular culture and seeped into political discourse. Chavez calls this portrayal the “Latino Threat” and it goes something like this:
Latinos are a threat to the nation. Latinos have too many babies. Latinos can’t or won’t learn English. Latinos refuse to integrate. Latinos are replicating their own culture in the U.S. Latinos are part of a conspiracy to take over the American Southwest.
According to Chavez, these ideas are not only biased, they are divisive—even dangerous. They divert attention from a critical national problem—the legal status of 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.—fueling a political firestorm instead of offering a solution.
In his new book, “The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation,” Chavez examines how the story about Latinos developed, and how it plays out in public life. The narrative, Chavez says, drove the 2005 Minuteman Project to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border; the 2003 controversy over Jesica Santillan, an illegal immigrant who received organ transplants; popular images of out-of-control Latina fertility; and the 2006 marches for immigrant rights.
With Orange County-based data—drawn from a 2006 survey and a 1997 study on reproductive health—Chavez attempts to dismantle what he says are the faulty tenets of the Latino Threat Narrative. He claims Latinos, like other immigrants, adapt and conform to the diverse, ever-changing culture of the United States even as they enrich and shape it.
Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with him:
Q. Was your method to start collecting images?
A.[In 1981 or 1982], I started collecting images of magazines, newspapers—this was before blogging started on the Internet. From the 70s into the 90s, the sheer number of alarmist images grew tremendously. We went through two major recessions, immigration became a hot topic. Issues of changing demographics became a hot topic. The browning of America became a hot topic.
Q. What do you think are the biggest factors here in Orange County that have perpetuated the Latino Threat Narrative?
A. I think, number one, the demographic change was rapid.
After World War II with the real estate covenants [in Los Angeles]being declared illegal, people moved out, to West L.A. and other parts of Los Angeles. So you had a white flight. Orange County became the white alternative to the changing demographics in Los Angeles, in the 50s.
At the same time, you have a booming Orange County economically, which draws in more immigrant labor.
Q. I would like to talk to about the belief that Latinos are forming a separate society. Where does this belief come from?
A. It comes from two different sources. One, it comes from the Chicano movement itself. Remember, back in the 1950s and 60s, it was pretty much a stigmatized population. Jim Crow was very strong in the 40s, 50s. Restaurants, pools were all closed to Latinos. Schools were bad in Latino neighborhoods.
So one of the things the Chicano movement attempted to develop, just like the black movement, was a sense of pride. The ideology that emerged was the idea of Aztlan—that Latinos who are here are in their homeland. They aren’t foreigners here.
And for some academic scholars in Chicano studies, they took it even further and said Aztlan is our homeland and we deserve to take it over. They helped introduce the idea as much as those who see, from the outside, that the growth in the Latino population is a threat.
I think politicians have learned that railing against the immigration threat, particularly the Latino Threat, brings in votes.
For the common people who get riled up, let’s say the folks who are in the Minutemen . . . a lot of their constituents, I think what they really feel, bottom line, is that the movement of people in the world across national borders really is a threat to the kinds of rights and privileges they deserve as citizens.
And you’ll notice, many of their constituents are the ones who maybe aren’t getting the full measure of the benefits of American society. They aren’t getting the best health care. They may not even be insured. They aren’t getting the great jobs. They aren’t getting the great pension plans.
Q. How do you think the Latino Threat Narrative affects Latinos and race relations?
Latinos as a group, first of all, are very varied. But one thing that unites them all is that the main source of information is the media. There’s a surprising number of Latinos who believe [the Latino Threat Narrative]. It’s divisive among Latinos.
Until we do something about the Latino Threat Narrative, the anti-immigrant discourse, the idea that illegals are somehow inherently criminals, we’re never going to see immigration for what it is. Basically, an economic benefit for the nation.