Foreigners in Our Own Land
Mexican people and their indigenous ancestors have, more than a few times in history, been made to feel like foreigners in their own land. It happened to the Aztecs. It happened to the Kickapoo. And it’s happening now to Dreamers. In this episode, we examine this common experience, and how it can illuminate the divisive immigration debate that stems from, in many ways, a failure of many Americans to identify with their own immigrant stories.
Ross Chambless: The painting of the Kickapoos visit to Maximilian was painted by Jean Adolphe Beaucé, sometime between 1865-1867. It shows an intriguing moment during the brief French occupation of Mexico when Ferdinand Maximillian, who was the short-lived appointed emperor of Mexico, was paid a visit by members of the Kickapoo tribe.
Jean Adolphe Beaucé’s “Kickapoos visit to Maximilian”
Fanny Blauer: The Kickapoo were a group of indigenous people originally established in the New Mexico area after the Civil War, they were kicked out.
Ross: Actually, the Kickapoo people had first been met by French explorers in the Great Lakes region in the 1640s. But after two centuries of white expansion across North America, they were forced to cross into Mexican territory and were in the process of seeking permission – oddly enough – to be there, from the newly imposed French leader in Mexico City.
Fanny: What I see in this painting is that other than the indigenous people, nothing represents Mexico. I see Europe. I think for someone who is looking at this painting and asks where is this happening, they would think Europe. We look at the golden framing of the paintings, the carpet, the way people are dressed. Everybody is white.
Photographic portrait of members of the Kickapoo tribe taken during their short stay in Mexico City in 1865, photographed by François Aubert. Getty Research Institute. More historic images of this historic visit can be seen here in this blog about Early Latin American Photography.
Ross: The white people are presumably the family and royal associates of Ferdinand Maximillian the Austrian-born Emperor who was trying to rule Mexico at the time, in the mid-1860s. This was after Spain, Britain and France had jointly decided to invade Mexico over an issue of unpaid debts. French forces managed to push out Benito Juárez’s government, and France’s Napolean III asked Maximillian, who was the younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, to take charge.
Susan Vogel: I look at Maximillian, and he is just thinking, Holy Hell.
Ross: Maximillian had come from European, privileged royalty. So, one can imagine his surprise meeting this colorful band of indigenous people. All of them seemingly dressed in their best native garments, complete with colorful pluming feathers on their heads. Nonetheless, Maximillian later described them in a letter as “heathen Indians.”
Susan: I just see him just standing there, frozen. Like, what? Trying to figure this out.
Ross: For some background, Maximillian was brought to power partially through the help a group of Conservative Mexican monarchists.
Emperor Maximilian of Mexico with his wife Charlotte
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.
Susan: “A Mexican delegation comes to him and urges him, says Mexico wants him. And he says, well I want a vote. He was a proponent of democracy and had good intentions. So they brought him back a vote. They said they voted for you. But the reason he had won, was actually based on fraudulent or forced voting. But he came with really good intentions to Mexico.”
Ross: Good intentions or not, Maximillian was challenged by a fierce insurgency of Liberal Mexican reformists who wanted him and his European monarchs out. The Liberals lead by Benito Juárez eventually managed to overthrow Maximillian and execute him.
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868–69), oil on canvas, 252 x 305 cm. Kunsthalle Mannheim
Ross: But as for the Kickapoo people in Beaucé’s painting, they are shown in a tenuous position at best.
Fanny: They are coming to Mexico to be recognized and acknowledged when to me, it’s a country of mostly indigenous people – mestizos – and yet they are the ones having to be asking permission to come to this place. So it’s very powerful.
Ross: This Nuevas Voces, Part 10. In this podcast, we talk about Mexico’s history through its art. In this episode, we’re not going to be talking so much about that short-lived European takeover of Mexico. And we’re also not going to be talking about the Kickapoo, but rather, we’ll be examining this complicated social and racial dynamic that Jean Adolphe Beaucé’s painting evokes. That is the feeling of being a foreigner in one’s own land. Here Luis Lopez gives his impression.
Chief of the Kickapoo tribe, Mexico City, 1865. Photographed by François Aubert.
Luis: One thing I find interesting when you find compromise between two groups, it’s almost the indigenous group or the oppressed group going 90 percent of the way. Right. They’re meeting, but it’s obviously not their space. So when they met, how much leverage did each group have in coming to some kind of agreement, right? I see this indigenous group the Kickapoo, out of their element, but willing to go into this unknown, uncomfortable space, to be recognized, to be seen, to be heard, to have a voice.
Ross: I should note here that today there are several independently recognized Kickapoo tribes living in Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico. And interestingly, they are still considered a semi-nomadic tribe. Both Mexico and the United States have informally granted the Kickapoos the privilege to seek employment in both countries. In a sense, they have dual citizenship.
Ciriac Alverez during a rally in front of the Utah capitol.
Photo by Leah Hogsten, The Salt Lake Tribune.
Ciriac: For me it’s interesting to see how I would feel being in a place, being invited to a space that’s your home, but not actually being recognized in your own home.
Ross: This is Ciriac Alvarez. She’s a Dreamer, a DACA recipient, living in Utah.
Ciriac: Like the Kickapoo, coming there and trying to be recognized as a group of indigenous people that deserve to be there but not recognized.
Ross: Ciriac is one of nearly 690,000 DACA recipients living in the U.S. DACA, of course, Is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was created under the Obama Administration as a response to Congressional inaction to address legal immigration reform.
The vast majority of DACA recipients in the U.S. immigrated from Mexico.
This graphic came here.
Ciriac: As a DACA recipient, as someone who is an undocumented immigrant, and grown up here in the U.S., I’ve felt the same way sometimes. Even though this is my home, and I’ve lived here for 20 years, I still am not recognized, right, for being a part of this community. And the dichotomy is very interesting to see just how different their lives are, and how separated they are from each other, not really understanding one another.
Ross: It’s entirely possible that you, the listener, have never felt the sensation of being a stranger in your own land. Maybe you have. It’s a feeling where you both belong, but don’t belong at the same time. I can’t honestly say it’s a condition I’ve given much thought to until recently – until I’ve learned more about the legal dilemma for Dreamers and DACA recipients in our country. I wanted to learn more about Ciriac’s story.
Ciriac: So, my name is Ciriac Alvarez, and I was born in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. I immigrated with my family when I was 5 years old. That was back in 2001. And I’ve grown up here in Salt Lake City, Utah, ever since. I graduated from high school as Senior Class president in 2013. And just recently this May I graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Sociology. And, I am a DACA recipient. I received my DACA permit at the end of my senior year when it was kind of important to be able to start working or have a license. So, for the past 5 years, I’ve been able to use my DACA to go to school, hold a job, buy my first car. So, being able to do that really gave me a positive view of my life. Because before that I wasn’t really sure about what would be next. I was just hoping something would happen. So, now with the end of DACA it’s been a little worrisome. Because I have about 600 days left on my DACA permit, and it’s really difficult to plan the rest of your life if only 600 days are actually secured. So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been involved with trying to organize, and fighting for undocumented immigrants, especially DACA recipients, and young undocumented immigrants.
In 2017 Ciriac Alvarez created an art installation in the Federal building in downtown Salt Lake of 10,500 hand-cut paper butterflies that were hung in the shape of Utah, to represent every Dreamer in Utah. The buttlerflies, created with help of elementary and middle school students, were later delivered to the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch. “Butterflies signify migration. Nature doesn’t have borders and I don’t think anyone is illegal,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s a beautiful concept to think of Dreamers as butterflies.”
Ross: Obviously DACA is very timely and relevant issue. We’re hearing about it a lot, every day in the news. And, as I understand, DACA was the result of inaction by Congress not being to pass any sort of immigration reform act. It was done because we have to do something, by the previous administration. And unfortunately, it’s become a very political issue. But for those listening, it gave you and about 800,000 other people in this country to have a life and make the most of your opportunities. Can you talk about the opportunities it gave you?
Ciriac: So DACA is a worker’s permit and deferred deportation for 2 years. And so, every 2 years, you pay $495 and go through an extensive background check. And I was able to get my first job. I first worked at a restaurant, and I saved up enough money to pay for my own tuition because undocumented immigrants can’t receive Federal financial aid. So FASFA isn’t allowed here in Utah. I know other states have their own version of FASFA. But here in Utah I was allowed in-state tuition, so I could pay the same amount as other Utah residents. But even then, it was still a lot of money because scholarships are scarce for undocumented students. So, I saved money and paid my way through school. I was also able to save money and buy my first car. And because I had DACA I could do internships. So, I interned in Washington D.C. for a while. I also did an internship with Comunidades Unidas, a local nonprofit that empowers Latino communities. It also allowed me to graduate from the University of Utah and get a job after because before then people were able to graduate but they were not able to work. So being able to have DACA gave me an opportunity not only to go to school and receive a higher education but then use my degree to help my community.
Fanny Blauer's relatives in Mexico: (On the left) "My grandfather and grandmother, parents of my mother, the girl in the picture. (On the right) "My parents when they were dating.
I have not been able to find pictures of my grand father’s indigenous ancestry."
Ross: What kinds of misconceptions do you encounter about DACA or Dreamers?
Ciriac: Yeah, I think people often think DACA is amnesty, where it’s nothing close to it. I think people really misunderstand what DACA is, that it’s only a worker’s permit and a deferred deportation. So, every two years, your deportation is deferred. It’s not any pathway to citizenship. It’s not any way to fix your status, it’s just a worker’s permit. It’s not a lawful presence in the U.S. It’s only something that allows you to work here legally, and come out of the shadows and say ‘I want to do things right.’ I don’t think a lot of people understand that. And because it’s only a worker’s permit, we still can’t qualify for a lot of Federal aid, like Medicaid, Medicare, FASFA. All of those government programs that people think we use or take, we still aren’t allowed to use them. So, the misperception that we’re taking things away from American citizens is something that’s funny to me, because we still can’t qualify for any of the benefits. Yet, still we are going to school, and contributing to our communities, despite all the obstacles.
Ross: I wonder if part of the reason so many Americans lack empathy for undocumented immigrants, is that many of us no longer relate to the immigrant experience. Even if we can intellectually admit that we exist in this country only because someone in our family line, at some point in the distant past, arrived in this country without citizenship – we don’t have our great-grandparents around anymore to tell us what it was like. It’s hard to fully appreciate. But indeed, each one of us – with the exception of Native Americans – is connected to an immigrant story.
Luis Lopez's immigrant grandfather: Luis: "(the older photo) is said to have been taken around the time he was a brazero, the second is a picture that was taken in the early 2000's and I switched hats with him just to mess around."
Luis Lopez: So, my family history goes back to my grandfather, who was actually a brazero (manual laborer). He was the first one to come what is now the United States to work, and put food on American tables, and sending money back home. Due to that, my uncles came to the U.S. My dad is actually the youngest. We come from Zacatecas and Jalisco. He came to the United States because there wasn’t any opportunity to work or education. He went to the 6th grade and starting selling fruit and shining shoes. You know, with 8 or 9 brothers and sisters there is only so much you can do in town, and resources. He talks about eating tacos con sal, or tacos con salsa y chile, and that’s it. So, that was his choice for coming to the U.S. And because of my grandfather, he knew there was work.
On my mom’s side, we come from Michoacán. She came about 4 years old to the U.S. At that point, my grandmother worked 2 or 3 jobs. My mom basically raised her sisters. She went to high school and had to work at a jewel refinery to help pay the bills. So, that’s kind of how we ended up in the U.S. Because of their experiences, they really pushed education. And because of being born in the U.S., I had that opportunity now, which wasn’t an option for them. And then going to school, now I could choose what I wanted to do for work, versus finding something, finding a way to get by. So, that’s how we ended up here. It was an opportunity. Very low resources back in Mexico. And there weren’t options to move up or improve your living conditions. So, that’s what drew them to the U.S.
Ross: Here’s Susan Vogel
Susan's European immigrant Ancestors: On the left: "The Youngest Son's Farewell", painted in 1867, by Adolph Tidemand (1814 - 1876). On the right: a photograph of Susan's ancestral home in Norway. In those days it was common for only the oldest child - male or female - to inherit the farm. Other siblings would leave, often at age 14 when they were expected to begin supporting themselves and find work, which was in the U.S. Her ancestors arrived in the U.S. in 1887 when there was no food in Norway and people had been making bread out of tree bark.
Susan: Well, my family came here for many of the same reasons. From Norway, 1880. One-third of the population came to the U.S. because people had nothing to eat. So, I hadn’t really explored this history, but if you go to the museums most of the art from the late 1800s through the early 1900s is the sorrow of having your family have left. News coming back of terrible things happening. A lot of the paintings are of sending the son off on the ship. Or bad news coming on a letter from the ship. So, at that point most people had farms. My family had a farm. Most of the farms had been in the family for 10 generations. They have Viking burial mounds on the farms. At a certain point, there was no food, and people were making bread out of tree bark. And the oldest child would inherit – either male or female, interestingly. They would stay on the farm, and all the other kids – they usually had lots of kids because they needed the manpower – would leave and get on ships to the U.S., because they had a relative. But it was the same reason. They lived in sod huts in the mid-west. I always joke, they had a terrible life in a harsh climate in Norway, and they came to the U.S., which was a terrible life, in a harsh climate in Minnesota or North Dakota. They continued to farm. They did get land if they farmed it. And they built churches. The churches look exactly as they do in Norway. And my grandmother grew up on a farm with underwear made of flour sacks. And the only toys she had were little rocks. And she said, enough the farming, I’m not going to marry a farmer. So, that was a big thing for her. She married a truck driver. And my mom got the heck out of the little town, and got an education, and went to Chicago. So… you know, the same stories. You can’t feed your family. You’re going to do what you need to do, right?
Susan: And come here with a sense that I’ve put the problems behind me. I’ve put the corrupt governments behind me. I believe in the system here. And a great determination and desire to be part of the system here, and to make it fulfill your belief that it’s the best system. And that’s why I’m amazed, when we do classes at Horizonte School, and have taught 80 immigrants and refugees. And they all say, this is the best country in the world. We have the best systems here. We believe in justice, we want to be a part of it. That’s pretty amazing. To have so many people here who believe in our country who will fight for it and become educated to participate in it.
Ross: To be quite honest, I don’t know a lot about where my family line comes from specifically in Europe. It’s something I regret, and something I want to learn more about. But frankly, it’s not something I think much every day. And speaking as a privileged white American whose distant relatives likely arrived in this country from Europe sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s, I don’t feel any familial connection to any other country. Here’s more from our conversation.
Ross Chambless's immigrant ancestors? (On the left) "This photo was taken in 1925, somewhere near Waco, Texas. The woman on the left is my Indian ancestor, Mollie Frances Brown Chambless. She was either Cherokee or Choctaw. Her son is the man in front, her oldest son, Charles Edward Chambless. He was my great grandfather. So far we haven't found our immigrant ancestor on the Chambless side, but we're looking."
(On the right) "My mom recently began researching her own genealogy and discovered this photo of John Patrick Hart who immigrated from County Sligo, Ireland, sometime in the mid 1800s. Like so many immigrants from Ireland then, he probably migrated to America because of the Irish Potato Famine. He was my great great grandfather on my mother's side."
Ross: I think there’s that element of losing connection with the immigrant experience of your ancestors in this country, that can lead to this lack of empathy. Sort of, not recognizing the experience of immigrants her in our modern period, because we are so disconnected by several generations. Or, the cultural lack of telling these stories within our families about what it was like to be an immigrant. I think that exists in some Mormon households because they have a fairly recent memory – within the last 100 to 150 years – of what it was like to be persecuted and have to leave your home and find a place that you would feel safer. And that exists, and we see the reaction of some Mormon households to the persecution we see today of refugees and immigrants. But I think with many American households there is that lack of connection and lack of empathy.
Susan: But you might, especially with your child, be more interested in finding out. I mean, I didn’t know anything about Norway. Nothing, until my mother started remembering things from her childhood. In her generation, the parents did not speak their native language to their children. My mom remembers hearing prayers and swearing in Norwegian, and that was it. But even growing up here, the kids who spoke another language were sort of shunned. It was like, you need to learn English right now. They would give them a year to learn English. So, we grew up with that being the distant past, and not being very interested in it. Again, Mormons tend to be more interested in their heritage and genealogy. Maybe that’s why Utah tends to have more compassion for refugees and immigrants from other places. But Mexico is so close, and it’s a lot easier to be connected. Even though my daughter is half Mexican, I had to work really, really hard to get her to stay connected. And her dad, he was an immigrant from Mexico, in his family if you gave up your Mexican citizenship – because there was no dual citizenship – you were a traitor. I remember going back to Mexico, and his cousins would be so angry with him. They would start tequila contests to show, oh, you think you’re still Mexican? Prove it. You have a U.S. passport. That was considered being a traitor.
So, I think we have suffered, Ross, because we have not been able to maintain these connections. And I think we grew up, in a sense, of our “sea to shining sea”, Manifest Destiny world. And, very much like, we’re Americans, meaning U.S., and our identity is this is what we’re entitled to. And we have forgotten that we came from some pretty desperate situations as well. And a lot of us are from the silent generation, and they don’t talk about struggles. So, I think we who have grown up here with a vague sense of our own history have really…we have missed out on a lot. Maybe there is some jealousy, of people who have come here and who can celebrate the cultures of where they came. They have a rich cultural life. And then, what do we have, you know? I grew up here thinking our identity was Mormon pioneer identity because that was what we were taught in schools. We were taught that Utah’s history started in 1847, and it was about the Mormon pioneers, and that was our identity. Well, it wasn’t mine. I didn’t know what mine was. Because I hadn’t started exploring it until about a year ago. So, I think that maybe we can learn is that where we came from, and the struggles of the past, are something that enrich our life, enrich our experience, and give us compassion for everyone else. Because we’re almost all in the same boat. And the more we see that, the more we understand that we all have a common history, background, and purpose, and role here.
Ross: It is amazing to see where conversations about art and history can take you. You can see an image of Jean Adolphe Beaucé's "Kickapoos visit to Maximilian" on the webpage for this podcast: www.artesmexut.org
There you can also see some photographic portraits of the Kickapoo tribe that were taken during their short stay in Mexico City in 1865, and related to our discussion in this episode you can find some resources to learn more about dreamers and DACA recipients here in Utah.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel, Fanny Guadalupe Blauer, Luis Lopez, and Ciriac Alvarez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Calexico, Antonio Pinto, Gustavo Santaolalla, Elliot Goldenthal, and this rendition of the Mexican classic Cielito Lindo by Marta Gomez. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
Engage with Us:
Have you ever felt like a foreigner in your own land? Tell us about it.
How well do you know your own family history or genealogy? Can you trace your family history back to an immigrant story? Does your family maintain any cultural traditions that were passed down from immigrants to the U.S.?