Behind the Latino appreciation for Anthony Bourdain

Notes, photographs and flowers are left in memory of Anthony Bourdain at the closed location of Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain used to work as the executive chef, Friday in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Among the many tributes and condolences pouring in for Anthony Bourdain, Scott Kelly’s surely came from the rarefied heights. The retired astronaut tweeted that he watched the master storyteller’s shows from space because they pulled him closer to humanity.

“It made me feel more connected to the planet, its people and cultures and made my time there more palatable,” he said.

From his heavenly vantage point in space, Kelly said, Bourdain inspired him “to see the world up close.”

When we struggled to make sense of a world where difference is not tolerated but vilified, Bourdain, a hero of curiosity, someone said, taught us that the unknown was something to embrace and enjoy. Adventure was his muse. Sharing a meal and a drink was a means to connect and to discover we have more in common than we might think.

His travels around the globe, he said, had enriched him by showing him how other people live. “How hard their lives are, how big the world is,” he told CBS in a recent interview.

Bourdain was a champion of the marginalized. If you’re Mexican-American or Mexican or Latino – or even if you’re not – you have seen and heard accolades for his eloquent and irreverent public defense of Mexican immigrants and his appreciation for Mexican culture that reached broadly beyond just its cuisine.

In a famous 2014 essay that’s been shared widely in Latino circles, he wrote:

“As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy — the restaurant business as we know it — in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are ‘stealing American jobs.’ But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had one American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position — or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do.”

Bourdain said he was grateful for the skilled Mexican cooks and kitchen workers who toiled in obscurity but were generous just the same, showing the new, celebrated chef the ropes, imparting the knowledge they had worked long and hard to acquire.

“In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there — and on the case — when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine — ran away to go skiing or surfing — or simply ‘flaked.’”

The Mexican workers Bourdain stood up for get a raw deal. Working diligently in back kitchens and behind the scenes, but unappreciated, they are unwittingly yanked into the spotlight when their people are vilified as “criminals” and “rapists” overrunning our border, flooding our cities with drugs, taking jobs from Americans. In that narrative, they become something less than the rest of us.

Oh, and about those drugs, Bourdain wrote: “We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but ‘we’ as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them — and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them … In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs — while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us.”

In daring to call out American hypocrisy over illegal immigration, Bourdain spoke bravely and with unflinching honesty, as much or more than any other American celebrity. The double standard is that this is a country that puts out the hiring sign to employ millions of unauthorized workers, yet spends billions to keep them out. To call that out is to risk self-inflicted wounds from the likes of those who cry, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Bourdain surely knew the risk — and was a willful defender of the immigrant workers he came to know.

Yes, that is why after learning of Bourdain’s death, some Latinos gravitated to social media to express their admiration for Bourdain, who dared to confront stereotypes and rhetorical talking points to present human beings and immigrant workers in a different light — with dignity.

 

Trump: Border wall position unchanged. But can you spare $18 billion?

Hundreds of people, many of them Haitian, demonstrate against racism in Times Square on Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, January 15, New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Trump is learning that the problem with asking U.S. taxpayers to pick up the $18 billion tab for his border wall is that they have long memories. Particularly when there’s money involved.

They remember when Trump promised ad nauseam at campaign rallies across the country in 2016 that Mexico would pay for a wall. Trump staked his bid for the presidency on it.

So, it’s natural for them to ask now, “What do you mean, you want us to pay for it?”

Faced with the reality that Mexico won’t pay – they were never going to – it should be embarrassing for the president to have his hand out in order to make good on a campaign promise he knew he couldn’t deliver. He should be more embarrassed that he is asking for border wall funding at the same time he’s playing political games with the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people known as Dreamers. These are the immigrants who came to this country illegally when they were children. Trump is insisting that a deal in Congress to avert a government shutdown and to extend legal protections for these young immigrants will only happen if lawmakers approve funding for his vision of a border wall.

Still, Trump isn’t giving up on the idea that Mexico will pay, no matter how preposterous that idea might seem. On Thursday, he tweeted:

“The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S. The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!”

Perhaps the president’s most ardent supporters will buy that sketchy “Don’t worry, Mexico will pay you back” promise, but most Americans won’t.

It’s important to note that most Americans don’t want a border wall, either, according to polling. And nearly nine in 10 Americans favor allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to a CBS News poll out today. DACA gives recipients work permits and protects them from deportation.

Dreamers shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions to bring them here in search of a better life — some were infants when they came. Nor should they be played for a political football.

The president can do the right thing and untether their fate from his condition for funding for a border wall, one that most Americans don’t want.

RELATED: A southern border wall is still Trump’s north star 

Trump tweeted more about the wall Thursday, taking the extraordinary step of contradicting his chief of staff by saying that his position on a border wall had not changed.

On Wednesday, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said Trump was not fully informed when he promised to build a wall last year. He said the president’s position had evolved.

Trump shot back on Twitter: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water…”

Bear in mind that the president promised over and over again in 2016 to build a wall spanning the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border. More recently he’s told lawmakers that a continuous wall won’t be needed after all because of natural barriers. The $18 billion he’s asking for now would pay for about 900 miles of wall.

That sure sounds like a stance that’s evolved. What gives?

Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month the president had “discovered” there are rivers, mountains and rugged terrain that aren’t conducive to building a wall in some locations.

Oh, that. That’s something Texans could have told the president a long time ago.

 

From Cornyn, a border security plan less Trumpian, more Texas-friendly

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn points to a poster with an image of barrier on the Texas-Mexico border as he announces his border security plan Thursday on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

For President Trump, a border wall is a signature piece of his domestic agenda, of such magnitude to him politically that he fumed with Mexican President Peña Nieto and pleaded with him to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for it. More on that later.

For U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, however, a border wall is important, but it’s not everything.

“It’s not the whole story,” the Republican Texas senator said Thursday as he presented his $15 billion border security plan that relies more on personnel and technology and less on a wall than the president might like.

As Maria Recio reported in the American-Statesman, Cornyn’s border plan calls for a layered strategy of walls, fencing, levees and technology. Called the Building America’s Trust Act, the bill would increase the number of federal agents at ports of entry and on the border, as well as add more immigration judges and prosecutors. It also would pour more resources into state and local efforts to fight drug trafficking.

VIEWPOINTS: Jobs, not ‘sanctuary’ policies beckon immigrants to U.S.

Cornyn’s plan brings a more reasoned alternative to Trump’s one-size-fits-all, build a border wall approach. It is also likely to go over better with Texans who oppose a wall for a number of reasons, not the least of which is some people just don’t think it’s necessary. Many of those critics live along the border, a point Cornyn subtly referenced when he said federal authorities should consult local officials in shaping border strategy.

That’s something you hear a lot in South Texas and up and down the border, where some residents feel they’ve become a requisite photo op for politicians who swoop in for an hour or two to assess border security — as if that’s all it takes — then return to their respective homes in faraway states. That’s what Trump the presidential candidate did in a 2015 visit to Laredo.

It’ll be interesting to see how Cornyn’s bill progresses and whether it receives bipartisan support. As a border senator and majority whip, he holds considerable sway in Congress and on the fortunes of any border security measure.

‘You cannot say that to the press.’

Trump paved a path to the White House in no small measure on his boastful promise to build a “beautiful” border wall.

“And who’s going to pay for it?” Trump would ask delirious supporters at campaign rallies.

“Mexico will!” they would roar in response.

But leaked transcripts of a January phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto reveal the president knew Mexico would never pay for the wall and that his demand for payment was just a political play. More importantly, he wanted the Mexican president to stop saying publicly that Mexico wouldn’t pay for a wall.

Trump acknowledged that his public posturing on the wall had left him in an extremely tight spot politically.

“The fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to,” Trump told Peña Nieto in the call.

When Peña Nieto kept insisting that Mexico wouldn’t pay, Trump said: “You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”

Trump later said the border wall is not all that important – remarkable considering all his bluster about it.

“Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important (thing we) talk about,” Trump said.

Trump has steered away more recently from demanding that Mexico pay. He’s asked Congress for a $1.6 billion down payment for the wall, which the House has approved. Mexico will “reimburse” the U.S., Trump has said, without offering details on how that might happen.

That all sounds fuzzy. One thing is clear from that January phone call, however: Mexico won’t pay for the wall, and Trump knows it.

That means — and let’s face it, we knew this all along — American taxpayers will foot the bill, which the Department of Homeland Security says could hit $21.6 billion. Will Trump’s supporters still cheer?

RELATED: U.S. policy stole 8 lives in a truck. Why the dying won’t end

As Trump pulls back on a border wall, some aren’t pleased

A boy runs up toward the U.S. border fence from his backyard in San Benito in June. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Like the twisting Rio Grande, President Trump’s position on a border wall is changing course.

The president, who made the promise of a “big, beautiful border wall” one of the cornerstone promises of his campaign, significantly dialed back on the pledge Thursday, telling reporters that a 2,000-mile-long wall is no longer necessary “because you have a lot of natural barriers.”

“You have mountains. You have some rivers that are violent and vicious,” Trump said, according to excerpts released by the White House from the president’s conversation with journalists aboard Air Force One. “You have some areas that are so far away that you don’t really have people crossing. So, you don’t need that.”

Hmmm, that sounds a lot like Texas to us.

RELATED: “Why the border wall fences us in”

The president said he now believes only 700 to 900 miles of wall are needed. About 650 miles of the border with Mexico are already protected by fences or walls; many of those miles in Texas. Trump seemed to suggest that repairing fences already in place would count against the total miles he has in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“You know, we’ve already started the wall because we’re fixing large portions of wall right now,” Trump said. “We’re taking wall that was good but it’s in very bad shape, and we’re making it new.”

At campaign rallies, where supporters’ chants of “build that wall” became a staple, Trump often talked about a wall 30 feet high running the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. But on Thursday the president described a new vision of a wall more closely resembling the fencing already up in places like South Texas, where, at least in some cases, fences hug residents’ back yards.

“You need transparency,” Trump said. “In other words, if you can’t see through that wall — so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.”

Trump won the support of conservative groups who liked his tough campaign talk on immigration. Some clearly aren’t happy with his changing course on a border wall.

“We don’t have the rule of law when it comes to immigration,” Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington told the Times. “It doesn’t exist. There’s immigration anarchy.”

His new position, however, is likely to go over better with some of the president’s prominent supporters in Texas, who think more border walls aren’t the answer on border security. They include Dennis Nixon, a well-known Laredo banking executive who had this to say to me recently about a border wall: “No serious person thinks you can build a wall from El Paso to Brownsville with any kind of reasonable expectation it will be successful.”

Nixon was the Texas finance chair for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign. Among other solutions, he advocates cleaning up dense vegetation along the Rio Grande so that border enforcement agents gain better access and visibility.

A final footnote on why Trump said a border wall needs openings, and we’ll leave it there.

“As horrible as it sounds,” Trump said, “when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.”

 

 

 

Why the border wall fences us in

A section of the border fence with a gate, bounded by smaller chain-link fence in Runn, Texas. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.   Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From atop a dusty bluff on the U.S. Mexico border in deep South Texas, the mighty Rio Grande commands the panoramic vista below. Its waters a muted hue of green, the river courses wildly in every direction, zig-zagging here, straightening out there for about a mile due south before making an impossible hairpin turn due north, then zig-zagging again. With its bedeviling twists and turns, the Rio Grande is God’s work or Nature’s work, or both.

This is the border.

The border fence, however, is far from the river’s edge in many places, up to a mile in some spots, leaving many Texans and their way of life caught in something of a No Man’s Land, as reporter Jeremy Schwartz noted in last Sunday’s American-Statesman.

In communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley, people’s homes, their farmlands, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries, cemeteries and soccer fields are caught in the space between. Intended to keep people out, the fence instead cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there. Even some homeowners have been cut off from their own land.

Then there’s the case of Greg Garcia. To get to his classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Garcia regularly passes through an opening in the 18-foot-high border fence. To get home, he drives south past the fence, where U.S. Border Patrol agents let him through.

Large numbers of people make similar every-day adjustments to get to school, to their jobs and to their homes. It’s an alternative universe not like the way of life people along the border knew for generations before, a carefree existence that allowed children to frolic in the river’s cool waters on scorching summer days.

Though I’ve lived in Austin most of my adult life, I grew up in the Valley and still consider myself a son of the border. When I was a kid, crossing the border meant a Sunday afternoon outing with your parents, strolling the plaza, getting your shoes shined, stocking up on cookies and candies and enjoying a Mexican coke before it was hip.

Not everyone thinks the fence upsets the way of life here, however. Arnold Lopez says he hardly sees the steel fence anymore, having crossed it so many times. “It’s not like it’s the Berlin Wall or anything,” he told Schwartz.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

Only about 10 percent of the border in Texas is currently fenced in, but President Trump has promised to build 1,250 miles of new border wall, most of it in Texas. A Department of Homeland Security report puts the price tag at a staggering $21.6 billion. If Trump fulfills his vow, it’s likely that much more of Texas will be caught in a no man’s land, because unlike many parts of other border states, in this state the Rio Grande hugs residents’ back yards and vast parcels of private land.

The madly winding shoreline made building a wall a maddening experience for federal officials a decade ago. They learned that fencing along the river’s banks would exacerbate flooding. And most riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, forcing the government to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain in the courts.

The prospect of extending the existing wall should lead Texans to ask if building more will expand the No Man’s Land beyond just South Texas.

A border wall is President Trump’s magic answer for solving illegal immigration. His campaign rhetoric stirred up fear, painting a portrait of a sievelike border overrun by criminals and rapists. Trump would have you believe that the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. all sneaked across. He would have you think they’re all from Mexico, and that illegal immigration is growing.

A new study by the Center for Migration Studies, however, separates hot rhetoric from cold reality. The report found that fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across, but instead entered the country legally with a valid visa and then overstayed. No amount of border fencing will stop people from entering the U.S. legally.

And the current reality is that the number of Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to about 193,000 in 2016, a near-historic low. Pew also found that the number of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007. More recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted a 40 percent drop in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico this year.

And then there’s this nugget from Pew: The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has not changed since 2009.

Facts can be inconvenient and I doubt politicians have those figures at their fingertips when they parachute in, donning body armor to ride speedboats down the Rio Grande, flanked by law enforcement officers brandishing high-powered rifles. Fleeting moments made for television campaign commercials.

The Texas border wall fences us in, corralling too a reality that’s as murky as the Rio Grande after a summer thundershower. For every Rio Grande Valley resident who has had it with illegal immigration  — and there are many — you can find at least one other who says a border fence doesn’t make them feel any safer. Some fear an expanded wall will destroy communities, and that money for it would be better spent on motion sensors and technology.

As we all question whether an expanded wall will be efficient and useful, we should glean what we can from life in the shadow of the patchwork border fence in South Texas, and we should ask, “Is a wall worth the cost?”

Cinco de Mayo’s American roots

Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman A-List photos from La Condesa's Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.
Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman
A-List photos from La Condesa’s Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

This week sombreros, colorful embroidered dresses, Mexican beer ads, as well as green, red and white streamers, will have been prominent in preparation for today: Cinco de Mayo. It’s one of several days of the year that many Americans use as an excuse to eat, drink and celebrate.

What some Americans may not know is that Cinco de Mayo, or 5th of May, not only has its roots in Mexican history, but also very much so in Texas history — and by osmosis, its roots in Texas history makes Cinco de Mayo American, too.

To clarify: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That highly celebrated holiday would be 16 de Septiembre. (Yep. Mexico’s equivalent of the Fourth of July is Sept. 16.) What then, you ask, is celebrated on May 5th? This day commemorates an outnumbered — 2,000 to 6,000 — Mexican army’s 1862 victory over French soldiers at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. However, this one successful battle did not end the French intervention in Mexico. Mexican victory over the French would not come until  1866. (Which explains why Cinco de Mayo doesn’t make it onto Mexico’s list of national holidays.)

Where are the American ties in this? Let us count the ways:

  1. Though Texas was once a territory of Mexico, it wasn’t at the time of the Battle of Puebla. By then, the United States had already purchased Louisiana from France in an agreement that also included handing over Texas. Yes, technically, Texas — like other cotton-growing and slave-holding states—had seceded in early 1861 from the Union to join the Confederate States of America at the time of French intervention in Mexico, but it’s still important to note because …
  1. The man credited with leading the Mexican troops to victory at the battle of Puebla was from Texas. As University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora writes, “The celebration of the battle of Puebla also acknowledges the heroic role of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a 32-year officer from Goliad, Texas. Soon after the surrender of Veracruz, Juárez had appointed him minister of war and navy, and assigned him to lead the Army of the East and the defense of Puebla.” So, yeah. A Texan won the battle.
  2. The American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s role in the Franco-American war. Yes, the Americans helped Mexico defeat the French. A year after the battle of Puebla and after victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg here at home, President Lincoln turned his attention to the Rio Grande borderlands. In a letter to the Union commander in New Orleans, Nathaniel Banks, Lincoln wrote: “Recent events in Mexico,” he said, “render early action in Texas more important than ever.” Troops were sent and, eventually, the French were forced out of Mexico.
  3.  Cinco de Mayo celebrations have taken place in the U.S.since after both the Franco-Mexico and American Civil Wars. In the beginning, Latinos in California and the other parts of the U.S. celebrated Cinco de Mayo with parades where people dressed in Civil War uniforms and give speeches on the Battle of Puebla.
  4. Today, more than 150 years later, the celebrations continue as cities organize official Cinco de Mayo festivities and American schoolchildren perform Mexican folkloric dances and recite Cinco de Mayo-inspired poems and plays to celebrate the occasion.

 

Why Abbott is really skipping seeing Pope Francis

Mexico Pope
In this Feb. 16, 2016 photo, Pope Francis blesses a wooden cross during a meeting with Mexican youth at the Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Pope Francis may not technically be coming to Texas, but for all practical purposes he might as well be. When he arrives in Juarez on Wednesday, Mexicans and Texans alike will be watching.

As many as 200,000 Catholics are expected to cross from El Paso to attend the papal mass in Juarez and thousands more are expected to watch from the American side of the border. Notably absent from the spectacle and celebration will be Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott, a practicing Catholic who often makes reference to his faith from the stump and the Capitol, was invited, but declined to attend due to a scheduling conflict.  He intends to swear in the state’s new education commissioner on Wednesday.

It’s no secret that the presence of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly this pope, poses a political problem for Abbott. Pragmatically speaking, the dilemma is  strategically easier for Abbott to navigate by being absent, rather than risk a public scolding by the pontiff.

Although Francis’ visit to the United States last fall was met with rock star enthusiasm by the public, his reception by Republican leaders was more muted. While Catholic theology and GOP ideology align on matters of abortion and gay marriage, the list of issues where they part ways is long: global warming, immigration, Syrian refugees, aid for the poor and the death penalty. (Texas executed Gustavo Garcia on Tuesday for for the shotgun slaying of a suburban Dallas liquor store clerk. The execution was the state’s third this year.)

Of all the Christian denominations, the Catholic church is one of the most publicly exacting on the intersection of politics and faith. In fact, that is why until recently Catholic lawmakers in the U.S. have tried to place political distance between their religion and their policies. They have let President (then candidate John F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the subject be their guide:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

It’s a strategy that Abbott has shrugged off on matters where he and the church agree, but may place him in difficult positions in the future as the number of Catholics and Latinos in the state continue to swell.

Francis has used his popularity and his pulpit to remind those in power of where the Church stands. Considering the fallout from Pope Francis’ visit last fall, maybe Abbott is wise to stay away.

Speaker of the House John Boehner met the Holy Father in private and quit his job the next day.

Correction: This blog has been updated to correct John Boehner’s title.