Raising Hispanic Kids in a ‘Build a Fence’ World

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum

Hispanic family waiting by the 'Dream Army' tent before participating in the candlelight vigil for Michael, an undocumented teenager who wants to volunteer to join the Marines but cannot because he is not a legal resident of the United States despite living there for most of his life in Phoenix, AZ.

My daughters have never met Arizona Governor Jan Brewer — and it’s likely they have never even heard her name. That makes sense since they’re only 9 and 11. But even at their age, they’ve become familiar with Brewer’s — and her state’s — handiwork.

I was born in the U.S., my wife was born in Mexico and emigrated here when she was in college, and my daughters were born in New York City. That makes them passport-carrying, natural-born, eligible-to-run-for-President Americans. But they’re also Mexicans and they like that just fine. From the time they were pre-schoolers, they’ve seen themselves as a happy mix of the red, white and blue and the red, white and green — but the happy part hasn’t always been so easy.

They were not old enough to notice when I would leap up to mute the TV whenever the seemingly ubiquitous Lou Dobbs would appear, going on about this or that imminent threat looming just south of the border. They were surely too young to appreciate what was going on when hardliners on Capitol Hill blocked George W. Bush’s plan for legalizing America’s 11 million undocumented aliens.

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But they definitely understood only a few years later when their Mami watched the news, learned about Arizona’s show-your-papers law and worried aloud whether it would ever be safe for her to travel there again. They surely understood when other legal-alien relatives wondered if they’d better hurry up and sit for their citizenship tests, since a green card and decades of productive residency suddenly seemed like flimsy protection.

In the weeks since the just-passed election, there’s been no shortage of hand-wringing on the right — and not-entirely seemly gloating on the left — about the demographic suicide the Republican party seems to be committing. In 2004, Bush won a respectable 44% of the Hispanic vote. This year, 44% represented the margin between Mitt Romney’s 27% and Barack Obama’s 71%. In fairness, it’s the shrillest voices in the GOP that are mostly responsible for that pr0blem, not the more moderate ones — Bush and, at one point, Romney among them. But shrillness is hard to ignore, and the the bigger question for parents in the Latino community is not what kind of damage is being done to the Republican brand, but to children growing up in a political atmosphere in which ideology has become less programmatic than personal — even racial.

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To some extent, parents tend to over-worry these things. No sooner does a scandal or crisis of some kind break out than earnest people begin asking, “What do we tell the children?” Often, the answer is nothing. Six-year-olds honestly need no explanation of the David Petraeus mess and it’s not likely they’re stumbling across reports of it on the Disney Channel anyway. Ditto your kindergartner and the Gaza fighting. If they ask, you answer. Full stop. But questions of ethnic bias are another matter. Those are matters of a far more primal nature, and you can never tell when a rogue shell is going to hit.

“You try to stay on top of what they hear and explain it when information gets through,” says developmental psychologist Natasha Cabrera of the University of Maryland, College Park. “Ethnic identity will be a big part of their make-up, and there are a lot of things that influence that. Parents are the first filters.”

At stake for kids who absorb too much anti-immigrant demagoguery is more than pride in ethnicity, but their deeper sense of self-esteem. It’s not a coincidence that children who grow up in environments in which their own worth — or, just as bad, the worth of kin and clan — is under attack also exhibit higher rates of premature sexuality, drug abuse and criminality. These kinds of behaviors are all ways to try to fit in or make some kind of mark. “The extent to which legislation and media rhetoric affects the self-esteem of Latino children is unclear,” says psychologist and PhD candidate Mark Trujillo of Princeton University. “But the connection between discrimination and self-esteem has been the subject of interest  for some time now. It’s likely to be contingent on how severe and pervasive the discrimination seems.”

One way to mitigate that severity, experts say, is to do more than just block the news, but to act preemptively against those times kids pick up on it. “I think it’s generally a bad idea not to tell kids what’s going on in the world in advance,” says Cabrera. “It’s preferable for them to have the idea that the world is full of nasty and nice people, but that no matter what, you have their back and you love them.”

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It’s not certain, of course, how and when you take those preventive steps. My wife and I surely exhibited a touch too much blue-state cuteness when we bought our girls “Wise Latina” t-shirts after then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was pilloried for uttering the words in 2009. But the girls are undeniably Latinas and I dearly hope they’ll be wise, and it seemed better to own the term before they could hear it used as a slur.

The question for the GOP in the wake of its recent electoral drubbing is how fast they can get right with Latino voters after so many years of “build the dang fence” campaign ads and loose talk about “self-deportation” and other similar nonsense. “I think they have a steep hill,” says Cabrera. “I know of one girl in the classes I teach who was born here while her sister emigrated from Bolivia and you had a household with one child who could go to school and the other couldn’t. It’s very hard for a party to win back people who have been demonized that way.”

That’s hardly to say that a whole generation is lost to the GOP. Just because Latino parents flock to vote Democratic doesn’t mean their kids won’t turn out to be equally enthusiastic Republicans — as Eisenhower-era parents who raised a generation of McGovern-loving Boomers learned, and as the Boomers themselves discovered when their kids rushed to sign up with the Young Republicans the second they left the house. Annoying mom and dad is half the reason kids vote the way they do. But it’s not unfair to say that contemporary Republicans face a heavy demographic lift. Voters are vain and need to feel a little love. Young Latinos have been getting something very different.

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