When she crosses over into the United States, Makina immediately recognizes a profound contradiction in the status of Mexican immigrants: they are essential to the functioning of United States society, yet treated as unwanted intruders. People who leave Mexico for the United States are signing up to join the bottom echelons of society, to suffer racism and work in exploitative conditions that guarantee them few economic rights. By portraying the discrimination and arduous conditions that immigrants face, Herrera suggests that the United States’ fundamental values—independence, freedom, and equality—are often not awarded to the very groups who need them the most. However, by coming to understand these conditions and learn from social movements that have improved the status of other groups in the United States, Makina learns to see that Mexicans’ oppression in the United States is changeable and worth fighting against.
Makina sees people like her everywhere in the United States, but quickly realizes that Mexican immigrants are doing the worst jobs in society and treated as invisible non-entities by white people. Most of the Mexican people Makina meets north of the border work as low-paid physical laborers, such as the boy who harasses her on the bus and whom she later sees taking the trash out from a restaurant in the early morning. When she first arrives, she learns to recognize “her compatriots,” the people who work outdoors, in the city’s public space, but are “just there to take orders.” Although low-paid Mexican laborers are the most visible workers in the United States, they are invisible and powerless in a political sense. The most powerful story is Makina’s brother’s: a white family recruits him to join the Army in place of their terrified son, who signed up on a rebellious whim. This is both an egregious example of the way Mexican immigrants are often forced to take on undesirable positions laboring to support the white people who refuse to take them. Makina points out Mexican immigrants’ position as an underclass in the letter she gives the “patriotic” policeman, describing them facetiously as “We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours.” Makina’s description both references the actual economic desperation that drives people to migrate and highlights many white Americans’ racist, contradictory, and profoundly distorted picture of Mexicans.
Indeed, the racism Makina experiences brings this contradiction to the fore: it is immediately and powerfully clear to her that white people do not want her (or people who look like her) in the United States. The policeman’s rant about the (mostly homegrown) Mexicans he forces to kneel before him reveals his belief that Mexicans exist to “fall in [line] and ask permission [from white people].” He uses his belief in the supremacy of white culture—which he calls “civilized” in contrast to Mexican culture—to justify his violence. Makina goes on to dream about a white man calling her “scum,” which shows how she internalizes a sense of racial injury from watching so many people treat her with suspicion and hostility. After being attacked so frequently, she now expects it, and this internalized sense of inferiority is what converts Mexicans from being an assailed minority (in some situations) into a permanent underclass (who expect to be seen as inferior in all situations). And Makina’s outsider perspective of the United States adds further depth to Herrera’s critical view of the contradiction between the United States’ values and its treatment of Mexican immigrants, showing how it celebrates itself as freer than any other country, yet turns people with minoritized identities into an underclass of laborers who are poor by design.
Yet, as Makina observes how other marginalized groups react to discrimination, she sees that migrants can challenge their status and mistreatment through political resistance. This first happens when she learns about the existence of African Americans—initially, she does not understand who they are or how they live in a nation usually imagined as white, but she soon sees that their status is comparable to Mexicans. Later, she knocks on the door of a house that she hopes is her brother’s, and a black man opens the door. She is confused, and the man is initially offended, before he realizes they both see what is transgressive—and therefore progressive—about his owning a house in a white neighborhood. They laugh it off and Makina realizes that African Americans are “the key to her quest,” which points to the way African American struggles for civil rights serve as an influence, template, and source of solidarity for those of other groups like Latinx immigrants. Makina also sees possibilities for change when she encounters a large crowd of same-gender couples waving rainbow flags outside a government building (a clear reference to same-sex marriage). Makina grows conflicted: she is “dazzled by the beauty” of this public spectacle of pride but cannot understand why queer people imitate the straight people who oppress them—just like Mexican immigrants want to live the same lives as the middle-class white people who exploit, underpay, and insult them. By conforming to a certain extent, she realizes, immigrants and other oppressed groups can subtly gain greater social standing within an oppressive society, but they must not lose sight of their own political goals in the process.
Herrera ultimately shows how discrimination is embedded in the everyday politics of race in the United States: Latinx people, like those of many other backgrounds, are deemed eternal outsiders and thought of as unable to be gainfully assimilated into the United States. Especially when they lack documentation, Mexican immigrants are treated as unredeemable and disposable by the same people whose comfortable lives largely depend on Mexican immigrant labor. And yet Makina also clearly sees paths forward toward equality, both through solidarity with other movements and through her efforts to help narrate the experiences of Mexican immigrants to the white American citizens who discount them.
Racism, Inequality, and Social Change ThemeTracker
Racism, Inequality, and Social Change Quotes in Signs Preceding the End of the World
You just took your last trip, coyote.
I’m no coyote, Chucho said.
Ha! I seen you crossing folks, the man said. And looks like now I caught you in the act.
Not the act I’m denying, said Chucho, tho I’m no coyote.
The anglo’s expression indicated that he was engaged in a mighty struggle with the nuances of the concept. He scanned Chucho’s face for a few seconds, waiting for clarification. And now, yessir, chose to point the gun at them.
What I’m denying, Chucho went on, Is that you caught us.
The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.
The stadium loomed before them. So, what do they use that for?
They play, said the old man. Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are. He stopped, raised his cane and fanned the air. One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.
Scum, she heard as she climbed the eighth hill from which, she was sure, she’d catch sight other brother. You lookin to get what you deserve, you scum? She opened her eyes. A huge redheaded anglo who stank of tobacco was staring at her. Makina knew the bastard was just itching to kick her or fuck her and got slowly to her feet without taking her eyes off him, because when you turn your back in fear is when you’re at the greatest risk of getting your ass kicked; she opened the door and versed.
The door opened and there stood a small man with glasses, wrapped in a purple bathrobe. He was black. Never in her life had she seen so many black people up close, and all of a sudden they seemed to be the key to her quest.
It’s not like in the movies, he said. I know that here everything seems like in the movies, but it’s not like that there. You spend days and days shut in and it’s like nothing’s going on at all and then one day you go out but you don’t know who you’re fighting or where you’re going to find them. And suddenly you hear your homie died that morning and no one saw where the bullet came from, or you come across a bomb nobody saw get thrown, but there it was, waiting for you. So you gotta go look for them. But when you find them they’re not doing jack and you just gotta believe it was them, they were the ones, otherwise you go nuts.
He’s homegrown, he said. Joined up just like me, but still doesn’t speak the lingo. Whereas me, I learned it, so every time we see each other he wants to practice. He speaks all one day in past tense, all one day in present, all one day in future, so he can learn his verbs. Today was the future.
1 guess that’s what happens to everybody who comes, he continued. We forget what we came for, but there’s this reflex to act like we still have some secret plan.
Why not leave, then?
Not now. Too late. I already fought for these people. There must be something they fight so hard for. So I’m staying in the army while I figure out what it is.
We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.