Ex Mex

Ex Mex

Rogelio García

Jorge Castañeda, Ex Mex,
New Press, 2008.


The notion of nation is an idea. Nationality as a notion of identity has evolved almost as a sociological and anthropological theory, and has managed to consolidate itself as a judicial provision through what the social contract tradition calls “citizenship”. With European expansionism, the concepts of nationality and citizenship began to be equated in many respects to the idea of civilization. The nation shall be integrated by a group of people who have inherent socio cultural, historical and even psychological qualities in common. The issue then became: Who can belong and who cannot? Who can be a citizen and who can reside along the borders?

As different expressions of European expansionism continued, these questions were answered in a variety of ways. In the American experience, the infamous Manifest Destiny summarizes better than any other proclamation of American imperialism this intrinsically misguided way to perceive, explain and relate to the world. After the Mexican-American War, for example, a popular guide for new settlers in the America South West argued that Mexicans were an inferior Mongolian race. Mexicans were considered mere “Indians”, barbarian savages who intended to hold such a region against the civilized world.

This example illustrates, in my opinion, the main reason for which the subject of Mexican immigration to the United States continues to be a major domestic issue at this side of the border. The original public justification to the imperial crime of territorial usurpation in the 19th Century leads me to conclude that far from being unique for its racist, imperialist and colonialist inclinations, America is unique for maintaining the utopian aspiration of the American dream. America, a land of opportunity. America, the “city on the hill”. America, a land of immigrants.

In Ex Mex, Jorge G. Castañeda, presents quite a particular and unique viewpoint on what at every light constitutes an incredibly controversial and politicized topic. Drawing on his personal experience as a migrant, a politician and an intellectual, relying on his vast understanding of Mexican and American politics, his pertinent recollection of history, and his sharp analytical skills, Dr. Castañeda does not only attempts to present an argument on immigration but he tries to disperse some of the most widely held and misguided ideas about Mexican immigration to the United States. Clear although not always strong arguments, abundant case materials and ample documentation provide a reasonable basis for an intelligent discussion on the issue, and encourage further understanding of this complex yet ironically ‘natural’ phenomenon.

Ex Mex, however, presents a series of generalizations and claims which, in conjunction, are consistent with Dr. Castañeda style: analytical yet argumentative, implacable yet cautious. There is no doubt Ex Mex does accomplish what Dr. Castaneda reveals in the preface as the purpose of his book. His warning concerning what he calls “a fundamentally single-sided account” of Mexican immigration to the US is also pertinent, especially if we consider that just a few lines later, while talking about the need to include a Mexican viewpoint in the mainstream US debate on the issue, he cannot resist the temptation to declare that Ex Mex is the Mexican viewpoint as opposed of just a viewpoint.

I find this rather interesting, particularly because of the way Dr. Castaneda decides to end his book. Just as he argues about the need for statesmanship to solve a controversial debate where politics often gets in the way of policy, Dr. Castaneda quotes Nietzsche. But if Castaneda’s final point is that any political or moral argument on immigration can by itself end up corrupting or manipulating any “common sense” policy through which the issue can be addressed, then his reference to Nietzsche must also have helped him realized that his own attempt to portrait the Mexican point of view is in and by itself a political argument getting in the way of policy. And this is the case not only for the series of controversial suggestions he makes throughout his book—like his idea of American taxpayers financing Mexican development— but also because of who Dr. Castaneda is, a former Mexican foreign minister, a former Mexican Presidential Candidate and a Mexican professor at NYU.

Any kind of manipulation in the conceptualization and use of the notion of citizenship or legality does not only generate a useless and meaningless rhetorical debate between those who condemn and those who defend immigrant rights. Such manipulation also provides “moral satisfaction” among those who—like Castaneda– promote these rights, and those who—like many Americans—reject them. Furthermore, to take the social and economic problems of the migrants—most of them originated in Mexico—and transform them into a judicial affair, a political recipe, a human rights violation or a public denunciation of chronic governmental incompetence, and then transform the story into a political argument, a moral claim or a book with a potential market, can end up being not only essentially unfair but inherently unethical.

In any case, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Dr. Castañeda’s newest book is the fact that he has managed to present “a” Mexican version of the problem through a book written in English and for the American market. After all, as Nietzsche would argue, xenophobic manifestations against illegal immigration just as much as opportunistic explanations of the phenomenon are both forms of chronic narcissism and collective neurosis.

Posted: April 13, 2012 at 9:21 pm