//Visiting Caminos

Visiting Caminos

the Arte Américas Project and Exhibition in Downtown Fresno (part II)

By I. smiley G. Calderón | smileygcalderon@gmail.com

“Come on over, but just don’t live here,” chided Dr. Alex Saragoza, professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and curator of the Caminos, Latino History of the Central Valley exhibit at Arte Américas, Casa de la Cultura, in downtown Fresno. We had been talking about the unique history of the Mexican migrant worker in the United States when he summed up our discussion with this blunt yet powerful message. It made me stop and think. The history of our American nation is full of immigrants who helped build this country from scratch. Some were invited to stay while others were really only invited to work and then leave, but who stayed anyway. Yet, for the Latino in America – especially the Mexican worker – this type of invitation was like the undulating movement of an accordion, back and forth, open and closed, for hundreds of years. In last month’s Fresno Flyer edition, we took a look at the early migration of Mexicans here in the Central Valley beginning with the first “camino” (the Spanish word for ‘road’) in 1772 to the third camino period of “Gold and Gringos,” culminating in 1900. Now, we are going to highlight the other four main caminos of the exhibit as well as take a look at the eighth final camino: today’s era. The good news is that you still have time to see this incredible exhibit for yourself for free throughout August.

A lot of working immigrants have traveled to the United States in search of economic opportunity – Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Irish, Germans, among others – who more or less came to America in a single wave to meet labor demands. Certainly, there were racial problems when they arrived. For example, here in Fresno, Armenian immigrants were prohibited from living in specific neighborhoods and suffered because of racially restrictive covenants. But, for Latinos – especially Mexicans – the treatment was especially harsh with multiple waves of invitation and forcible expulsion coupled with endemic racism and classism that are still in action even today. Yet, with each wave of migrant Mexicans coming to the U.S., the foundation for future waves of Mexicans was established. Soon, the migrants would begin to come from multiple, diverse Mexican states further south instead of from just the ones near the northern Mexican/U.S. border.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Mexicans traveled “Al Norte” (to the North) to work in the agriculture sector (“the fields”) and lumber mills as well as on the ever-growing railroad. During World War I, the United States invited working Mexicans with the Bracero Program. But after the war ended, the U.S. proceeded to deport them with the newly formed Border Patrol in the 20s and 30s. (what a crazy coincidence that “BP” was for both the inviting and expelling governmental entities that dealt with Mexicans). Once more, during World War II, when domestic labor workers were in shortage due to the war effort, cheap labor was in high demand, and again, Mexicans were welcomed to the fields through the Bracero Program. This continued until, of course, the war was over and cheap labor levels stabilized with the return of U.S. servicemen. Then came Operation Wetback in the 50s to round up all of the unwanted Mexicans and send them back home. Their “home” was never meant to be here.

And that leads us to the exhibit’s fifth camino, which Arte Américas refers to as the “Seeds of Change” period – a time where immigrant Mexicans began to spread their roots deeper into American culture. Here we have the rise of the Mexican-American, the future business owner, and entrepreneur, a new kind of immigrant citizen, no longer tied down to the cruelty of the fields. But there were strong forces in opposition. Local ranchers had become potent political forces, and in 1964 the Bracero program officially ended. There was an anti-immigrant sentiment. Once again, it was time for that cruel accordion to close itself upon the migrant Mexican, as we had seen done multiple times before. Still, the tide of change was on the migrant Mexican’s and Mexican-American’s side. Workers united to fight for equality and justice, for fair wages and humane working conditions in the agriculture sector. Heroes like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta emerged organizing migrant Mexican and Mexican-American communities for political change and socio-economic equality. In 1965, the infamous grape strikes ensued, lasting five years. Social change was coming – both in the city and in the fields.

El Chicano, the socially radicalized Mexican-American, arose during this next camino, called “El Movimiento,” (the Movement) in the 60s and 70s. Here, the children of migrant Mexicans firmly rooted themselves in their new American culture. The focus was now on education and inspiring art and culture. There was a purpose, a hope, but it was a difficult time. The Vietnam war was raging, and there was a military draft in place that pulled young Chicanos from their families to fight oversees. Many never returned home. But their memory lived on as the fight for equal civil rights continued to wage at the domestic front. Migrant Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and Chicanos alike united together for La Causa (the Cause) to improve workers’ rights and socio-economic justice.

The seventh and eighth caminos are the evolution of the grueling groundwork put in by the visionary ancestors of today’s Mexican-Americans and Chicanos. Arte Américas calls these roads “Progress and Backlash” and “Más Caminos,” respectively. With the population of Latinos and the more general group of Spanish speakers (called Hispanics) increasingly and rapidly growing in the U.S., more significant opportunity for business and politics emerged, but with it came political backlash. Latinos needed to reorganize and stand in unison for collective progress. And today, with the Latino population now exceeding 54% in the Central Valley, the question that remains is, what challenges and opportunities face Latinos in our era? And an obvious answer to this question is representation, visibility, and acknowledgment. 

For example, how is it possible that as recent as 2017 – less than two years ago – the display of local history presented at the Fresno Fairgrounds about the Central Valley did not represent any of the 247-year old Latino histories from which it comprises? How absurd! The history of the Central Valley is entirely incomplete without acknowledging the millions of Latinos who have labored here in blood, sweat, and tears to make this place what it is today. How embarrassingly ignorant – or maliciously disrespectful – it is to conveniently forget about and thereby erase an entire group of workers so crucial to our history by not even acknowledging them or their vital contributions! Unbelievable! But, thankfully, in response, Arte Américas diligently worked hard to research and present the incredible true story of Caminos, Latino History of the Central Valley to set the history straight. This exhibit is truly amazing, but its story is even more amazing. It has inspired a book in progress by Dr. Saragoza, which will share this incredible history presented at the exhibit. 

Nancy Márquez, Project Manager for Arte Américas who I interviewed for the first part of this story published in last month’s Fresno Flyer edition, likes to gently challenge visitors: “If Latino is not part of your past or history, can it be a part of your future…?” I think the answer to that question is a resounding yes! And, anyway, with the Latino population increasing at the rate that it currently is, through migration and births, a Latino is bound to cross your path and road soon, whether you like it or not. Today’s Mexican-Americans and Chicanos cannot just be rounded up and deported as they were in the past, you see. The accordion can’t close on them anymore. They are here to stay now and have paved the way for others to come and do the same. The tide of positive change is on their side.

In last month’s Caminos article, I asked, which camino era do you think is Nancy’s favorite? Hopefully, you’ve guessed right! You should go visit the exhibit and ask her for yourself, but here’s a hint: Nancy is a champion for education and social justice who doesn’t mind ruffling anyone’s feathers if it’s for a good cause. She has been a crucial backbone for Arte Américas since it opened some 30 years ago and she’s still a part of El Movimiento. As Nancy might ask, which camino(s) resonate with you and how are they intertwined with the road you are on? 

Let us know! You can find more information about the exhibit here: www.arteamericas.org.