Im­mi­gra­tion is about lin­eage, not lines on a map

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - THERESA VAR­GAS theresa.var­gas@wash­

A group of mostly strangers will gather in a soggy ceme­tery on Sun­day, stand around the grave of a Mex­ico-born man they never met and cel­e­brate a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment: his cit­i­zen­ship. Not his U.S. cit­i­zen­ship. His Repub­lic of Texas cit­i­zen­ship.

If that gives you pause, that’s okay. If there is one is­sue that should force us to stop ac­cept­ing sim­plis­tic, easy-to-de­bate nar­ra­tives, it is im­mi­gra­tion. The his­tor­i­cal flu­id­ity of our bor­ders, de­spite crowd-pleas­ing sound bites, is not as clear cut as a line on a map and il­le­gal ver­sus doc­u­mented.

Un­der­stand­ing and ac­knowl­edg­ing that mat­ters more than ever now be­cause we are at a point in our his­tory where U.S. cit­i­zens with Latino last names are be­ing asked to prove their Amer­i­can-ness.

In an alarm­ing re­port from my col­league Kevin Sieff about a surge in pass­port de­nials for Lati­nos along the border, he de­tails the ex­pe­ri­ence of a for­mer U.S. soldier. The man, who has an Amer­i­can birth cer­tifi­cate say­ing he was born in Brownsville, Texas, tried to re­new his pass­port and re­ceived a let­ter from the State De­part­ment say­ing it didn’t be­lieve he was a cit­i­zen.

The 40-year-old was asked to pro­vide what many of us would strug­gle to find: “ev­i­dence of his mother’s prenatal care, his bap­tismal cer­tifi­cate, rental agree­ments from when he was a baby.”

That man asked Sieff not to re­veal his last name be­cause he feared reper­cus­sions from the gov­ern­ment — his gov­ern­ment.

But his first name said enough. It was not Mike or Mark or John. It was Juan. Well, here is the story of an­other Juan, a man whom I have spent a lot of time learn­ing about lately and whose place in our coun­try’s his­tory speaks to

why it is dan­ger­ous to start judg­ing peo­ple’s wor­thi­ness to live in this coun­try based on their names.

Juan Var­gas ar­rived in San An­to­nio with his wife and daugh­ters when mesquite trees cov­ered the land­scape and homes were scarce. Texas was still part of Mex­ico then, but it would soon be­come its own Repub­lic and then even­tu­ally part of the United States.

First though, there would come a fight — one that would be­come known as the Bat­tle of the Alamo.

Don’t worry, this is not a his­tory les­son. This is about what is hap­pen­ing at this mo­ment.

Just a few days ago, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) ref­er­enced that bat­tle on Twit­ter, com­mend­ing the State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion for de­cid­ing to con­tinue de­scrib­ing the Tex­ans who de­fended the Alamo as “heroic.” He wrote: “For gen­er­a­tions, Tex­ans have drawn in­spi­ra­tion & strength from the brave men who fought and died for in­de­pen­dence at the Alamo. They re­main a sym­bol of valor for all Amer­i­cans.”

One of the most fa­mous of those de­fend­ers is, of course, Davy Crock­ett. A Dis­ney movie was even made in his name. But Juan Var­gas was also there. He was a landowner when he saw the Mex­i­can troops sweep into the city and take what they wanted — in­clud­ing him, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral ac­counts.

“I waited on them, per­formed kitchen and equipage tasks about the camp,” he re­called in an in­ter­view that was pub­lished in the San An­to­nio Light news­pa­per in 1910 and reprinted in the book, “The Alamo Re­mem­bered.”

The troops who held him cap­tive didn’t trust him with a gun, he said.

“I re­fused to go to the Alamo,” he said. “For this they threat­ened ex­e­cu­tion when the day was won but could not at that time waste a shell on me. One shell might mean vic­tory or de­feat.”

From the camp, he re­called hear­ing the “roar of the ar­tillery” and the “groan of dy­ing soldiers.” He also heard the re­peated cries of “muerte a los Te­janos,” death to the Tex­ans. He watched as Mex­i­can soldiers re­turned with wounds and the dead were left in a pile in the camp, un­counted.

“Oh, señor,” he told the re­porter, “that day is one to go down in his­tory, for never did [a] patriot band go more will­ingly to death than those hand­ful of Tex­ans im­pris­oned be­hind stone wall and fight­ing to the last. And never in his­tory is there recorded a bat­tle in which so few gave death to so many.”

When the re­porter in­ter­viewed him, he was al­ready an old man and knew he was dy­ing. The re­porter de­scribed him as 114 years old. It seems an im­pos­si­ble num­ber to be­lieve, but the re­porter noted that five gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily were alive at that time, down to a 3year-old great-great-grand­child.

A procla­ma­tion signed by for­mer San An­to­nio Mayor Lila Cockrell also lists him liv­ing to be 114 and de­clares Sept. 14, 1980, to be “Juan Var­gas Day.”

On Sun­day, a group of his de­scen­dants will gather at his San An­to­nio grave for a cer­e­mony in which the Daugh­ters of the Repub­lic of Texas — which is made up of the de­scen­dants of those who “ren­dered loyal ser­vice for Texas” be­fore it be­came part of the Unites States — will grant him a medal­lion ac­knowl­edg­ing him as a “cit­i­zen” of the repub­lic.

Some of those in at­ten­dance will have not met be­fore that mo­ment. Many came to­gether through a pri­vate Face­book page, where more than 300 of Juan Var­gas’s de­scen­dants have found one an­other. I know this be­cause my sib­lings and I are among them. He was our great-great-great­grand­fa­ther on my fa­ther’s side.

He is also the rea­son when peo­ple ask me about my fam­ily’s his­tory — or when I hear about life­long Tex­ans be­ing forced to prove they are Amer­i­cans — I pause.

Im­mi­gra­tion is about peo­ple, not just land, and so our dis­cus­sions about it have to be about lin­eage, not just lines.

The other day I was speak­ing on the phone with a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-area res­i­dent who was ex­plain­ing why he was an­gry with “il­le­gals” and at one point, he de­manded to know who crossed the border in my fam­ily.

“Who was the first who walked over?” he shouted.

I tried to ex­plain that his­tory wasn’t that sim­ple, that some­times bor­ders cross peo­ple. Some­times you can call a place home and risk your life for it and find that even if you don’t change, that place does.

He didn’t want to hear that. He pre­ferred the sim­ple nar­ra­tive.

Theresa Var­gas


Juan Var­gas will be hon­ored for his ser­vice to the Repub­lic of Texas at a cer­e­mony to­day at his grave in San An­to­nio.

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