Manifest Density: A Look Into Immigration History

When looking at immigration history we glorify the manifest destiny mindset held by pioneers of old. At the same time the U.S. creates laws and walls further restricting immigration.

| May/June 2013

  • Manifest Destiny
    On my endless speaking tour, people like to counter my comments with the inevitable, “Yeah, my family was immigrants, too, but we came here legally.” And I ask, “Who stamped their visas, Crazy Horse or Geronimo?”
    Illustration By Landry McMeans

  • Manifest Destiny

This is how I came to be standing inside a sodbuster’s hut at the edge of the Badlands, breathing 1876 air and hearing Spanish in my mind...  

Maybe it was Jim Morrison’s fault. Maybe it was Okie Bob’s. I have always had a mystical urge toward the biggest, emptiest, western landscapes—they promise mysteries and verities, room to spit and walk about. I spent barrio boyhood Sunday mornings with Okie Bob’s corral of cowboy movies and old western music in vivid black and white on channel six. But my nights? They belonged to The Lizard King. “The West ... is the best,” he intoned. “Get here and we’ll do the rest.” Psychedelic cowboy tunes on the edge of the continental shelf.

I was as west as one could get in the Lower 48; westering beyond San Diego would drop you right in the water. All that fascinating frontier stuff was actually east of my west. Unless it was south.

In Spanish, “frontier” is frontera. All the Tijuana license plates had FRONT on them, which I thought meant Tijuana was at the head of some great charge. Turns out, it was. Frontera does not only mean “frontier” in Spanish. It also means “border.” Pioneers and buckaroos, settlers and desperados was headin’ for me from two different directions. Here came The Virginian ... and The Sinaloan.


It is telling that, although we allegedly live in Chicago now, my family lives 35 miles west of the city. The West remains the best in my mind, and I drag the fam on epic drives almost every year. I feel relief when I cross the Mississippi, and shivers of delight crossing the Missouri. When the land turns red and black and craggy, I feel echoes in my bones. I hear America singing, as Walt Whitman said, though my kids hear The Killers and Nine Inch Nails, their earbuds going sst-sst-sst-sst.

7/13/2018 5:03:10 PM

For what it's worth, the most westerly point in the lower 48 is not San Diego at 117º 10' W but Cape Alava, Washington, at 124º 44' W.

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