Manifest Density: A Look Into Immigration History

article image
Illustration By Landry McMeans
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?”

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.

We head to South
Dakota, toward my Lakota brothers at Pine Ridge. I
always hanker to see my Oglala homeboys, Duane and Horses. Horses tells me
stories about how Sioux boys used to be migrant farm workers beside the
Kerouac-era Messkins. “Why do you think guys at Pine Ridge are named Pedro?” he
asks. Though there they say Pee-dro.

I remember Duane visiting me once in Colorado, and a local yelling from a passing
truck, “Go back where you came from!” And Duane, shooting back, “Where to, South Dakota?” 

Horses once, on the phone, three beers down: “You think the Indian wars are
over? The cavalry’s still chasing indigenous guys around the territories.”

Cornfields. Pecan logs. Plastic buffalo beside I-90.
Jackalopes. The West is the best. I rush out into the empty horizon, and go
deeper in.

My Immigration History

My Mom’s people availed themselves of traditional Manifest
Destiny–rolling west from their English roots. But my dad’s people were the
Original Illegal Immigrants, Spanish conquistadores. The Urrea brothers came
and took South America, then headed north.
Their ancient roots seem to be in the Visigoth invaders of Iberia. We are
migratin’ fools.

Once into Mexico,
el destino manifiesto sent them north again. Toward the frontier that
was later retranslated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo into the present
border. Thus, my inevitable entry: Mom’s migration met Dad’s and we washed up
on the farthest beach.

This may seem like old history to you, but Newt is on CNN
right now calling Spanish a ghetto language, and Mitt was on last night telling
us to self-deport, and all candidates seem to get real traction on the backs of
the “invading hordes,” on beaner border-jumpers, though the evidence shows that
we are at zero net immigration.

I remember when Slow Turtle, elder of the Wampanoag, came to
my college and said, “You boat people keep overcrowding my continent.” 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?”

I feel unworthy of the Black Hills, of the vast Badlands. Is it weird to want to embrace a bison? (Well,
I’ll be the first to admit it is kind of foolish.) I’m a liberal patriot: don’t
tread on me, cabrones!

There is a rainbow arching from the emerald prairies to the
glowing whiteness of the Badlands–the dark
violet sky behind makes the hoodoos and monuments seem to be glowing from
within. It’s a scene that would be too archetypal and rich for the
postmodernists with whom I teach. It’s so unironic. But, as David Quammen once
wrote, God gets carried away, to his credit.

There are the signs along the road: SEE! ORIGINAL
And: FEED! PRAIRIE DOGS! Well now, our next detour
is decided upon–Maw and Paw want to see real sodbuster huts, and the kids can
toss peanuts to the ‘dogs.

I used to work with a relief organization on the south side
of the frontera. We worked among beggars, orphans, prostitutes, drug addicts,
street gangs, killers, and prisoners. We fed widows and killed lice. It was
some rough country–it was Deadwood, in Spanish. The detritus and ruin
of a contested frontier.

What was interesting to me always was the debased grandeur
of hope. The beauty of scraping together castoff wood and paper and somehow
building a shelter against the wind and the beasts and your roving enemies. The
stink of these shacks, the endemic gray-black color that seeped in. The
newspapers on the walls to keep out the cold. The vermin that fell out of the
roofs. The wobbly handcrafted tables these small families gathered at by
candlelight to pick over their plates of beans.

These huts were scattered across a dirt landscape devoid of
grass or flowers. The city of Tijuana
piled dead animals at the edge of their settlement and set fire to the
carcasses. Run-over dogs, poisoned goats, dead cows and horses burned in great
bony pyres. And the wind never stopped.

My wife and I storm up the path toward the sodbuster homes
while the kids, giddy with the whistling little wag-tail dogs, spend all our
loose change on peanuts.

We bend to get in the door of the first hut, sunk into a
slight hillock. Still musty with the phantom odors of sleepers and cooking
fires and sweat and hope, the little hut is redolent in a ghostly way. The
table is off plumb and has clearly been hammered together from wagon parts. And
the floor is hard-swept dirt. It feels like church; we start to whisper.

And the dust is gray-black. The newspapers are still on the
walls. And beetles fall out of the ceiling. And for a moment I lose my
bearings. I know it. I know that smell. I know that dust. I have met those
beetles. I have sat on that crooked and dirty old bed.

We hurry out and rush to the next hut. And the haunted
feelings intensify. The soft shock. That small still voice of revelation comes
upon me there on the bare fields of the sodbuster settlement. This is the same story. The depraved and filthy huts of the Tijuana garbage-pickers,
poised on the edge of their frontera, are exactly the same constructions as
these noble and brave huts poised on the edge of their frontier. The
garbage-picker is simply part of the wrong story–those settlers are heading
north, which is the wrong direction. These good people were heading west. It is
our national story. Our drama. Our heritage. And it is beautiful.

Of course, nobody checked their footnotes with Duane or

Continuing on our westward journey, we take a detour into Custer State
Park. It is overrun by bikers, all of them
heading for Sturgis. We come to a crossroad with hills on one side, prairies
behind us, and shadowy forest ahead. All around our van, a run of Hells Angels,
flying their colors, rumble on their Harleys. We all pause at the stop sign and
become aware of a deeper rumbling than the bike engines. Suddenly, a real-life
stampede of buffalo breaks out of the trees and charges between and around us
in a tidal crashing of hooves. Angels yelling, “Oh my God!” The van shaking and
rolling. The kids flying from window to window, shouting. America’s shaggy heart has burst
open around us.

We are all laughing. But why do I have tears running down my
cheeks? Why can I not breathe?

Once the bison are gone, we drive on, into the West again.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s
most recent book is 
Queen of America.
Five of his books were pulled from classrooms by the Tucson
Unified School
District as a result of Arizona’s
ban on ethnic studies. Reprinted from
(May/June 2012), a bimonthly magazine devoted to creating a stronger bond
between people and nature.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.