Have We Forgotten Our Past?
By Ricky Cheney
At the commencement of the First World War, many people around the globe, including prominent anarchists, held differing views regarding participation in the War. Inside any “ism” there are at the very least nuances of thought. Among the anarchists, Kropotkin, Jean Grave, Monatte, and Nettlau all took stances supporting their respective countries’ involvement in the war, while Malatesta, Berkman, and Emma Goldman remained more consistent with their anarchist ideals. Malatesta wrote an article entitled “Anarchists Have Forgotten Their Principles” in which he reminded his colleagues: “We have always preached that the workers of all countries are brothers, and that the enemy—the ‘foreigner’—is the exploiter, whether born near us or in a far-off country, whether speaking the same language or any other.”
Emma Goldman furthered this argument by attesting that, “America is essentially the melting pot. No national unit composing it is in a position to boast of superior race purity, particular historic mission, or higher culture. Yet the jingos and war speculators are filling the air with the sentimental slogan of hypocritical nationalism, ‘America for Americans,’ ‘America first, last, and all the time.’” Factions are inevitable and often pernicious, but can also be a tool to strengthen any movement or ideology. Sometimes we must be reminded of our past and our ideals to continue forward in the right direction, and so it goes with Mormonism.
Members of the LDS Church have a lucid history of immigration that has been part of an intrinsic paradox characterizing the region now called Utah. We ourselves were immigrants who fled to a new country to find something better, yet now a malady of anti-immigrant sentiment towards a group in a similar position has somehow become prevalent in the state. Utah was not always Zion, nor was it a blank canvas prior to 1847 when Mormon religious-refugees, numbering 1,681 claimed the land. Mormon pioneers actually entered what was then Mexico’s far-northern frontier, despite a pre-existent Aztec claim of the area pertaining to the sacred region of Aztlan. Aztlan is the sacred ancestral home of the Nahua peoples who later migrated to central Mexico. The story of Aztlan became a tradition that depicted a utopian paradise, free of disease and death, which was located somewhere in the far north. The region of Aztlan included what is now the southwestern continental United States of America, and multiple studies have shown that the location of legendary Aztlan is in modern-day Utah. Mormons in pursuit of a similar utopia, Zion, migrated to the area, while the Aztec claim remains.
Mormons and Mexican-American Chicanos share similar elements in their histories ofoppression and struggle. The Mormons, of course, didn’t always reign as the predominant group where they resided. In fact, for the first 17 years following the founding of the Mormon religion, the inverse of that was actually the case. As a group that had suffered countless mob attacks and expulsions from multiple regions, the West was seen as a “blank canvas of infinite possibilities.” After the murder of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844, the Mormons were forced out of Nauvoo, Illinois and headed West. Mormons wanted to “escape persecution by a strategy of segregation…Relocated in the remote and arid Great Basin [Utah], the Mormons could escape persecution by a kind of spatial quarantine.” Maps at that time gave them little information about the area except that some labeled it as the alleged home of the Mexican Indians.
In 1847, this once-oppressed and marginalized people arrived in the ancient land of Aztlan and created a City of Zion where the community worked together for the good of the whole, their religious ideology tying them together. Land division was based on wants and needs and was a method of eliminating competition, speculation, and the advancement of capitalism. Brigham Young’s land policy was “based on an egalitarian vision for the community.”
In 1848, after only five months of the Mormon occupation of the northern tip of Mexico, the US and Mexican governments signed the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which annexed half of the Mexican territory to the United States. This included the areas currently recognized as California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and Utah. This treaty also ensured property rights of Mexican citizens in transferred territories. Such a promise was continually broken to the ex-Mexicans who had been transformed into country-less, unwanted peoples in the recently expropriated southwestern USA. To add insult to injury, in Utah a different type of immigrant was welcomed in their place.
The Perpetual Emigrant Fund was created by the Mormons and took on the task of increasing Utah’s population by bringing immigrant converts from Europe to the area. Mexicans, who had only two years earlier owned the territory (and who would one day become the largest group immigrating to it), were not invited to participate in the efforts of enlarging the area. The Mormon Commonwealth was admitted to the Union as the state of Utah, and in the following years there was an influx of Mexican immigration and domestic immigration of Hispanics to the region for its labor opportunities. Through secularization and embracing capitalism, Utah found a way to integrate outsiders, or “Gentiles,” into the Kingdom. Martha Sonntag Bradley explains this metamorphosis in a study on colliding interests. As she describes:
“Many of the non-Mormons who came to Utah to extract its riches were wealthy mining entrepreneurs and merchants, but far more were not. This low-income class of [Hispanic] workers resided primarily on the edges of Utah’s towns, never owned property but leased from absentee landlords, and were relatively invisible to local politics or mainstream social life. The city’s and the region’s wealth was largely dependent on the labor they provided. In a symbiotic relationship, these immigrants clung to the side of the city in a precariously tenuous position but nevertheless founded community institutions of their own.”
Trepidation arose concerning the influx of outsiders into the Mormon Zion. Bradley continues: “Mormon hegemony met with a steady stream of immigrants who came to work in Utah mines or industries. By 1890, the population was nearly equal between Mormons and non-Mormons.” A theological separation was inevitable, similar to that of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims who both make claims for land rights to the same plot of land. For many newcomers, settling in the area was not only immigrating, but actually returning to the sacred site of their ancestors, Aztlan. This was similar to what the Mormons themselves had believed about the ancient scriptural promises of Zion. This is the same impetus driving Palestinians to struggle for their land rights in a land they had inhabited for ages. The history of Mormon immigration and their later exclusion of Mexican immigrants is the paradox that lies beneath the polarized city of Salt Lake today. The history of immigration and diaspora for Mormons is so deep that one cannot ignore the fact that the Book of Mormon, the keystone of the religion, is a historical text full of families and groups migrating to multiple new regions.
Many Mexicans were brought by corporations to the region for work. In 1912 a group of 4,000 Mexicans were brought in to break a strike by European workers in the mining industries. Though prejudice ran deep in many people’s veins and discrimination was an ugly reality, the Latino population grew larger and larger as Anglos saw them as a lucrative component in the new game of Capitalism. By 1930, Latinos had become the states largest minority group. Latino immigration increased monumentally in the 1980s and 1990s. Various factors accounting for this rise include the collapse of the Mexican economy, violent conflicts in Central America, and rising poverty levels in already destitute regions of Mexico after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). During the 1990s, the Hispanic population in Utah more than doubled, from 84,597 in 1990 to 201,559 in the year 2000. The Hispanic population in Utah rose 234.5% from 1980 to 2000, and today Hispanics make up 12% of the state’s total population.
Responding to the increased immigration to the state, the state legislature has in recent years passed bills such as SB81, setting policies regarding education, work, and police regulation that damage the Latino and immigrant communities. The ideological divide that has been alive since the Mormon settlers first arrived, and supported and promoted through written policies and tangible, physical barriers, still pollutes the state today. Both Mormon and Latino communities came to this area as immigrants and must be reminded of this common heritage. Just as anarchists believe that all workers are brothers and sisters, and used this idea to bridge schisms brought about by World War One, we believe that everyone is a child of God and should be treated as such.
Mormons and Latinos have mutual goals and aspirations and can harness their differences and pluralities to be advantageous. The progression towards a society structured on communitarianism and cooperation, rather than profit and capital, will likewise mean the reduction of various types of privilege. The first step is that Latinos must be fully represented, and they indelibly have historical rights to such representation and equality.
We must ask ourselves, “Have we forgotten our principles and our past?” We are immigrants! This is the land of the Aztecs. Utah is Aztlan, not just Zion. Latinos are the largest minority group here and Mexico also legally owned the area when the Mormon settlers arrived. Irrespective of the party affiliations of Utah legislators who created discriminatory policies such as SB81, this is not a partisan issue. Rather, this is a highly spiritual matter.
Renowned Anarchist Rudolf Rocker wrote that “race theory is the leitmotif of a new barbarism which endangers all the intellectual and spiritual values in culture, threatening to smother the voice of the spirit with its ‘voice of blood.’ And so belief in race becomes the most brutal violence to the personality of man, a base denial of all social justice. Like every other fatalism, so also fatalism is a rejection of the spirit…”
Let us not smother the voice of the spirit by giving preference to particular cultures or ethnicities. Mormonism and all the collective “isms” found in the Latin American population in Utah can be symbiotic components of a more beautiful future. Harmonious, synergetic, and serviceable relationships are possible, but we must overcome the barricading impediments of harmful legislation and xenophobic sentiments. Homogeneity and monolithic conformity are not, and never should have been, parts of our teleology or end goal. We are all in this together, in Zion, in Aztlan, in America, and in the world. These titles may ultimately be arbitrary, but our spiritual and intellectual values are not. No matter where you lie on the spectrum of any of these battles, you are affected by and affecting the whole equation. Mikhail Bakunin stated, “I am truly free only when all other human beings, men and women, are equally free.” As Mormons we are only in Zion if we are allowing and promoting the existence of Aztlan for all of our brother and sisters, documented or undocumented, especially for Latino “immigrant” brothers and sisters with whom we share such a similar past.