Juan Hernandez once had a job that many Mexican-Americans would love to have. From December 2001 to September 2003, the native Texan and professor of U.S.-Mexico studies served as the equivalent of Mexico’s ambassador to Mexican immigrants living in the United States. As the director of President Vicente Fox’s Office for Mexicans Abroad, he served as a go-between and reintroduced Mexico to its runaway children in the north while doing the same for the runaways.
Hernandez had an office at Los Piños (the Mexican White House), but he’d fly home to the United States once a week to meet with immigrant communities from Alaska to Arizona. He’d listen to their concerns and reassure them that Mexico, the country of their birth, had not forgotten them.
I saw him in action when I was working in Dallas, where he taught at the University of Texas at Dallas. Hernandez was in town to address a business luncheon. It was one of those functions where Mexican waiters pick up the dishes and they’re mostly invisible. In cities such as Denver and Phoenix the idea of being waited on by the same people we say we want to get rid of is so common you miss the irony.
Hernandez didn’t. From the podium, he called out to one of the waiters in flawless Spanish and told him that he was there representing the Fox administration and that his countrymen in Mexico had not forgotten him. The man, visibly touched by the gesture, smiled and nodded.
I loved it. Not because I was witnessing some secret communique in a plot to retake the Southwest but because, given that Mexican immigrants sent home about $16 billion last year, Mexico owes them reassurances – and respect.
Before he took that job, Hernandez made an introduction of a different sort. Simply put, he introduced one rancher to another.
While teaching in Dallas, Hernandez happened to meet both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Fox, then the governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He thought the two men would hit it off, and indeed they did.
When the governors became presidents, they set out to craft an immigration accord to match Mexican workers with U.S. employers. Bush proposed a plan to grant a kind of temporary amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. And that helped spark the current debate in Congress over immigration reform.
The way Hernandez sees it, Congress now has a chance to create a more honest and realistic approach to the immigration issue, one that benefits both of the countries to which he lays claim: the United States and Mexico.
That’s right. In defining his allegiance, as Mexican-Americans are forever asked to do by nativists, Hernandez refuses to choose between the United States and Mexico. For that, a racist and anti-Mexican Web site once labeled him “an American traitor.” Sort of a Benedito Arnold.
Hernandez doesn’t care. For him, this issue isn’t political but personal. His mother was born in the United States and his father was born in Mexico.
This dual allegiance sets the tone for his new book, “The New American Pioneers: Why Are We Afraid of Mexican Immigrants?” In it, Hernandez recalls his experiences and profiles hardworking and taxpaying Mexican immigrants in the United States – the sort of people who, according to the author, not only mean no harm but are in a position to do this country a lot of good.
Hernandez makes a fair point. Immigrants, legal and otherwise, don’t bring much to this country except a mighty work ethic, a sense of optimism and the belief that tomorrow will be brighter than today. Elsewhere, I hear doom and gloom as the native-born cry in their $3 cups of coffee about how their government is “selling them out” to globalization and how America’s best days are behind it.
What a waste of good citizenship. Natives need to take lessons from immigrants. Maybe then they can reconnect with the spirit of America: that change isn’t about fear. It’s about renewal, which always brings strength, vitality and hope.
That’s the message that Juan Hernandez wants to share with his countrymen – well, the ones on this side of the border.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org