For those who seem to think that “making America great again” means reducing its Hispanic footprint, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who many observers believe could become the first Hispanic Cardinal of the United States, has a reminder: We were here 100 years before you.
“As we all know, in the standard narratives, the history of our country begins [with Plymouth Rock] in the 1600s with the Pilgrims and the Mayflower,” Gomez said on Thursday, when he delivered a public lecture on the issue of immigration in the United States at Boston College.
“But my friends, I want to suggest, that with all due respect to the Pilgrims — they got to this country about a hundred years late!”
Long before the U.S. had a name, hence before George Washington and the 13 colonies or Plymouth Rock, Spanish and Mexican missionaries and explorers had settled in the territories that today are Florida, Texas, California and New Mexico.
The Hispanics weren’t the only ones to arrive to the U.S. before the Pilgrims: the first Asians, from the Philippines, had done so about 50 years before.
“Something we should think about: the first non-indigenous language spoken in this country was not English. It was Spanish,” Gomez said in his remarks, underlining that even though he couldn’t dedicate his address to the Hispanic and Catholic roots of America, he did want to recover the country’s “forgotten history.”
Every people, he continued, has a story to tell about their beginnings, which helps them make sense of who they are. Yet, the story currently being told about America starts on the East Coast, New York, Jamestown, Boston, Philadelphia.
“We remember the first Thanksgiving, the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War,” he said. “That story is not wrong. It’s just not complete.”
This incomplete version of the country’s history gives a “distorted impression” of the nation being founded as a project of Western Europeans.
“It makes us assume that only immigrants from those countries really ‘belong’ and can claim to be called ‘Americans,’” and this misreading has “obvious implications for our current debates.”
It’s worth noting that even when the answer to the fill-in-the-blank exercise is obvious when reading his remarks, Gomez did not mention any politician by name in his more than 3,000 words. He actually begins with a disclaimer: “I am not a politician. I am a pastor.”
He also clarifies that his remarks are not about politics nor the 2016 presidential elections. Yet he speaks of a “drift” in the national conversation, and the failed state of American immigration policy.
“For more than a decade now — Congress, the President, state and local governments, the courts — they have all failed in their responsibilities to address this issue. The blame cuts across party lines. And sadly, we don’t have too many examples of moral leadership or political courage that we can point to,” he said.
Gomez also speaks of “warnings” from politicians and the media, who claim that “immigration from Mexico and Latin America is somehow changing our American ‘identity’ and ‘character.’”
“I hear these arguments and I think — what American identity are we talking about?” he questioned. “There has been a Hispanic presence and influence in this country from the beginning.”
Gomez was born in Mexico in 1951, arrived in the country as an immigrant and has been a naturalized citizen for the last 20 years. He joined the conservative and somewhat white-collar Catholic group Opus Dei when he was in college, was ordained a priest in Spain, studied in Rome, and did some of his early priestly ministry in Mexico.
In 1987 he was transferred to Our Lady of Grace Church in San Antonio, Texas. In 1995 he became a U.S. citizen. His episcopal ministry began as auxiliary bishop in Denver, and he was Archbishop of San Antonio for six years before being appointed to LA by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Hence, as most of the two million people deported by the Obama administration since 2008, Gomez has family and friends on both sides of the border.
“Immigration reform is one of the great issues of our day. It’s about more than politics and economics. It is a struggle for justice, dignity and human rights. It is a challenge to the conscience of every individual,” he said.
Furthermore, immigration reform “is a spiritual issue,” a test for “our faith, our humanity and our compassion.”
Gomez’s remarks on immigration weren’t solely focused on American history, identity, or politics, but also on the “humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters,” and the need for a more merciful and understanding approach to the issue.
On the “humanity,” the archbishop quoted Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who used to say that everybody talks about the poor, but not to them, arguing that the same could be said about immigrants.
“Sometimes I wonder how many of us — especially how many of our politicians and media figures — how many have actually had a conversation with an undocumented person?” he said, arguing that they’re often spoken about “in the abstract,” as a threat to jobs, wages and the American way of life.
“Those are important considerations. But it’s also important to remember that behind every ‘statistic’ is a soul — a soul who has dignity as a child of God, a soul who has rights and needs that are both spiritual and material,” he said.
Speaking of taking a more merciful approach, Gomez acknowledged that many in the U.S. are “worried and anxious,” and rightly so, about the global economy, the threat of terrorism and about fractured communities and a broken down culture.
“And many have come to focus on the 11 million undocumented people living within our borders as a kind of symbol for everything they are anxious about,” he said.
Yet as a pastor, he’s worried that in their fear, Americans-himself included- are closing down on themselves and hardening their hearts: “There is a cruelty in our policies and our public rhetoric.”
A truth not always acknowledged is that two-thirds of the undocumented people in the U.S. have been living in the country for at least a decade, and almost half live in homes with a spouse and children. So when someone is deported, in the name of enforcing the law, “we are taking away some little girl’s dad, some little boy’s mom.”
“Remember, we are not talking about violent criminals. We are talking about ordinary working people,” he said.
The immigration system in the U.S. is broken, he said, and there’s more than enough blame to go around. For almost 20 years, the government hasn’t enforced the laws, partially because American businesses were demanding “cheap” labor.
Every American, Gomez continued, has been “benefiting” from an economy built on undocumented labor: “They are the people who take care of our children. They are working on our landscapes and cleaning our offices. They are building our homes and waiting on tables in our restaurants; they are harvesting the food we eat.”
Yet the ones paying for this broken system aren’t the government officials, the businessmen, or “ourselves.” The ones being punished are the “the voiceless and most vulnerable — ordinary parents who came here seeking a better life for their children.”
“We are making them the scapegoats for our failures as a society,” Gomez said. And “that’s not right.”
“The immigrants I know are people who have faith in God, who love their families, and who aren’t afraid of hard work and sacrifice. Most have come to this country for the same reasons that immigrants have always come to this country — to seek refuge from violence and poverty; to make a better life for their children,” he said.