Essayist Richard Rodriguez Looks at Arizona Minutemen

May 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: President Bush calls them vigilantes. They call themselves minutemen. They say they are sick and tired of Mexicans taking American jobs, taking up emergency rooms, classrooms, airwaves, freeways — you name it.

Throughout the month of April, these self-styled minutemen conducted tailgate protests along the Mexico/Arizona border. They promised to return and to expand their vigil. The minutemen mix a metaphor. By comparing themselves to Revolutionary War militiamen, they cast Mexican peasants in the role of royalist troops.

It is more instructive to see the struggle along the Arizona border as an extenuation, perhaps a reversal, of the great American saga of cowboys and Indians. Today’s minutemen remind me of American Indians, how alarmed 18th century Indians must have felt at the intrusion of Spanish conquistadors. How alarming, too, the 19th Century wagons’ full of westering American settlers.

The story of cowboys and Indians was not about good guys versus bad guys, but about the tragedy that ensues from the intersection of distinct narrative lines. Cowboys: There is a tradition in the West of people taking the law into their own hands. The West was wild, after all, and vigilantes could be good or bad in cowboy movies. But vigilantes were good or bad in the cowboy movies — depending.

Officials of the Border Patrol have urged demonstrators to leave the job of guarding the border to them. Minutemen say they want the federal government to enforce the law, and they are doing exactly what the Department of Homeland Security asks citizens to do: Report anything suspicious. After a wet winter, the desert is ablaze with irony.

In the 1850s, war was brewing with Mexico at a time when Mexico ruled a region we now call the U.S. Southwest. Nativists on the East Coast argued against Irish immigration. Once you let the Irish in, they will join with the Mexicans, fellow Catholics, to overturn the Protestant state. The loudest voices against Mexican illegal immigration in 2005 have names like Pat Buchanan and Sean Hannity.

One might be tempted to read this southwestern conflict as yet another panel in the cartoon battle between the right and the left, the red and the blue. But it is executives of American agri-business who admit needing illegal immigrant labor whereas Cesar Chavez saw illegal immigration as a threat to his fledgling farm-worker union.

If Latin Americans are cynical regarding the sovereignty of our border, Americans incline toward hypocrisy concerning what we want and need from Latin America. There is a long U.S. tradition of claiming innocence, purity for ourselves regarding movements from the South. Killer bees are headed north from Brazil, remember?

Americans complain that Latin American drug lords corrupt our children, which is as close as we come to the truth. American appetite for drugs is the gravity that draws the drug trade northward, the same for illegal immigration. There would not be an illegal immigrant problem if Americans had not been hiring for decades.

The minutemen warned that al-Qaida could easily trespass the border, and vicious teenage gangs are headed from Central America. Beyond what illegal immigrants give us — difficult, dirty, often dangerous labor for little pay — their lasting contribution will be that they will force on us a sense of a proximity to the South.

We exist in the imagination of ourselves within a hemisphere. We grow confused in the dark. That brown Indian might be a redcoat, the cowboy might be an Indian, the terrorist might be a 19-year-old Mohawkan Indian headed to his job at a Phoenix dry cleaners– and your charcoal suit will be ready by 3:00 Monday. I’m Richard Rodriguez.