Joe Wiltberger

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The interview was organized around a few major themes. These include views or stereotypes of Latinos, views or stereotypes of immigration, the origin of views on these topics, the mass media’s impact on common views of immigration, and how North Carolinians may or may not have different views on this topic from people in other parts of the country. The interview has a brief background about Joe Wiltberger and talks about his personal experiences as well as his overall views on the questions listed above. Wiltberger gives a unique point of view because he has not only worked with immigrant communities, but he also has some experience working in the media field.



Caleb Wittum: This is an interview with UNC PHD Student Joe Wiltberger for the Southern Oral History Program’s series Latin American Immigrant Perspectives it is conducted on Monday March…Tuesday March 27, 2012 in Joe’s Apartment. The interviewer is Caleb Wittum. Can you start by telling me a little about yourself? What do you study? Where do you go to school?
Joe Wiltberger: Sure. Yeah. I go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I am a PHD candidate. I’m finishing my dissertation research which is about Salvadorian migration to the US and the impact that immigration has for communities of origin in El Salvador. And I also wrote my master’s thesis around the question of Latino immigration to the United States and how those…and how the Latino immigration debate is understood and framed in the US. And I’m from New York State but I’ve been living in North Carolina for the last, well 7 years for my graduate career; however, 3 of those years were spent in El Salvador.
CW: Umm. When you were in El Salvador did you do field research and have you done any in North Carolina or in the US?
JW: I have. I did 3 years of field research mainly based in El Salvador. Its qualitative research so I look at publications and literature coming from the government, different non-governmental agencies, development agencies that are all addressing migration and I also interviewed those folks and I also interviewed a lot of Salvadorians living in…some rural communities in the northern part of the country. Which is an area with a strong stream of immigrants, and a strong history of community organizing and development. So I interviewed them about their experience going to the United States. So that also included interviews with Salvadorian migrants from those communities in the Washington DC metropolitan area in New Jersey in Virginia and a few other areas as well in the US. My masters work, or my work in NC. I was involved in a couple of different initiatives one of them was the 287g working group. That’s what we call it. And we organized a series of community conferences. We collaboratively got a group of scholars together as well as community leaders. Umm people who work around issues of immigration and migration, and we put together some research and extended our efforts to help educate the local community and people around the UNC community about Latino migration, especially in North Carolina. And so our work around the question of 287g looked at local immigration enforce measures and what sort of impact they were having on people’s lives here in North Carolina in the local area. So I was involved in that. I also have been involved more generally with the Latino community in North Carolina. Having some alliances and conversations with local neighbors as well as other community leaders from for example the North Carolina Latino Coalition or from El Pueblo. Just throughout my encounters as the immigrant rights movement was really starting to take form and have a presence here beginning around 2006 with the mega marches. The question of Latino immigration became very important and relevant in people’s lives all of the sudden. And people started to notice that their communities were changing quickly and that people were raising their voices with some discontent around superposed immigrant enforcement measures. And so it became a relevant issue and a number of forums and dialogues happened. We brought a number of guest speakers to UNC and I went to a number of community based meetings and organizing meetings addressing important issues such as the raids in Smithfield or… other opportunities were we were bringing together local leaders and advocates to discuss and address problems especially around immigration enforcement, deportation, and the possibility of racial profiling and discrimination and the violation of civil rights of people in the local area.
CW: You worked a lot in this field. How do you think that the general public who may not have as close of access or interaction with the immigrants. How do you think they view immigration?
JW: Well in NC, we have a sense that Latino immigration is something very new when in reality it is not. There have been Latinos migrating, Latin Americans migrating to the United States from the United States, around the United States for hundreds of years. We have seen, you know, a rise in migration from the Central American and Mexican region over the last several decades. And North Carolina particularly has felt that change in the last 10 to 20 years as we became the state I think with the highest rate of Latino immigration. Many people coming from other parts of the United States: California where the cost of living became too high. The Midwest where meat packing and farm workers were coming into the Southeast were production was picking up. And for a variety of reasons. And so communities around here, in this state and around the Southeast, changed dramatically demographically in a short period of time. And so when people began to sense and feel that in their communities, I think there was a sense that the border was crossing them or that North Carolina was becoming part of the new south and therefore part of a Latin American space and a Latin American demographic. And I don’t know if everyone was ready for that. I think that race in North Carolina, as in many places in the southeast, has been thought of in binary or dualist terms: very much black and white, the American Indian presence. And while we have always had a Latino community here, the strengthening of that community was very sudden for people. So yeah I forget sometimes that not everyone is exposed and working closely with the Latino community here and I forget that there are some very prominent assumptions and stereotypes that carry over that simply aren’t debunked and aren’t… there are a set of taken for granted assumptions that people don’t question. And it is simply because not everyone is informed about where people are coming from. And about what their experiences are and why they are here. And I think it is exacerbated as well by the news media and the way the Latino immigration debate is framed in the United States in general, because there are a set of narratives about Latino immigration that are very negative that are very generalized and monolithic. That categorize a whole set of people in a very universalist way and attribute certain qualities and characteristics to them in very much, on very much, racial terms even though we don’t speak of race in the same way in the United States as we used to. We frame it in cultural terms or we code it in cultural terms. When very much this is still. The debate is very much a racial issue in that it is very much a debate around Latinos immigration in the United States. And because that debate, and Latinos as subjects of that debate necessarily so, has become so normalized in the United States. That’s the information that people have. So what people understand about Latinos comes from these very politicized narratives coming from the news media coming from politicians that frame how we are allowed to think about what Latinos mean or Latin American means for our communities.
CW: How do you think…these sources frame the Latino population? What characteristics do they attribute to this demographic?
JW: Well, there’s a number of generalizations that, you know, would be very hard to address the scope of those. And they vary. You know when we talk about culture or race or geography or nationality or ethnicity. Those are phenotypical categories that are never perfect and they are always changing. And People understand them differently according to their own subjective experience; their own subjectivities. It’s locally contextual right. If you live in Los Angeles you probably have a much different idea of what it means to be Latino or to be part of a Latino community than if you are in North Carolina. In Orange County. So these ideas are variant and they are flexible and they are changing. However, the Political rhetoric around Latino immigrant is very much framed in terms of national security right now and in terms of the Economy. Or at least those are the two explicit frames of reference that are drawn upon as people make assessments about whether Latino immigration is something good or something bad or how it could be addressed. So in terms of national security this is very much linked to 9-11 and everything that came out of 9-11. As a moment where suddenly you know our national security felt threatened. Our borders were fortified and built up even though I don’t know of any terrorist activity coming across the Mexican-US border. That very much became part of the political project: was addressing the Mexican-US border. And maybe that’s important…securing the sense that people feel threatened and therefore quote unquote illegal aliens are criminals or are criminalized in the popular rhetoric just on the basis that they don’t have a legal status. And that may be because you have overstayed a visa. It may be because you were forced out of your country and you weren’t able to get an asylum status. So all of these legal categories again we always think of legalization and illegality in a dualist way. But really, laws are never perfect just like phenotypical categories aren’t perfect. And we can’t address the plethora of context and situations from which people are coming. For example from Central America or Mexico in this case since that is the focus of concerns around Latino immigration in the United States. Laws…legal status is not applied equally. It is an unequal playing field…and citizenship is very much an idea that is determined in relation to how we understand our national community. Right who belongs and who doesn’t belong. So it is very much about our ideas about what it means to be American and what it means to be a part of the US. The other side of this debate is as I mentioned is the Economy. And of course, you know immigration has always been linked to concerns about economic wellbeing. And in this case, people look to Latinos as being part of a larger structural problem of absorbing a large number of migrants. Who then are, you know, taking away jobs from rightfully legal people living in the US. And that is also a valid concern. However, the way we understand the economic debate, because Latinos are the subject of that debate, tends to ascribe blame to a particular group of people. And therefore, that can generate these sorts of stereotypes and generalizations about, about an entire group of people, who suffer as a result of that regardless of their legal status. We’ve had us citizen who have been deported. And we look at the question of racial profiling well you’re more likely to stop or pull over a Latino. Is it because of these assumptions about legal status? And The reality is, a lot of legal citizens have been stopped by the police and so we need to be cautious of that. But the economic debate you know immigration has always been an important part of our economy. The 1990s, particularly you know the late 90s after NAFTA was signed, was an economic boom. Umm And George w Bush was pushing for temporary worker programs, for guest worker programs with some really ambitious proposals. And then that shifted. That shifted after 9-11 as the security discourse came about. And as far as assessments about whether or not you know undocumented immigration or temporary worker immigration is healthy for the economy. That again is debatable according to different context and different experiences. So what might be outstanding in…a local economy in a town in rural Indiana might be much different than what is going on in a neighborhood in northern New Jersey. And there is can look at this on the macro scale of the national economy or you can look at a local scale and what is going on. And indeed there is a number of different factors. But can we really reduce, you know, how we understand economic well-being to a certain set of reductionist factors and indicators. So it becomes very hard to judge that, but these are real concerns. So I think the economy and national security and the one that doesn’t get talked is this question of culture. And stereotypes, there’s been a lot of writing about this. Especially around the time that the 2006 marches were happening, several books came out by Latino studies scholars, and historians, and anthropologist and others who talk about. Who are speaking against the Samuel Huntington discourse that was particularly strong since the early 2000s and late 90s. Which is this idea of an invasion or a Latino threat narrative. Or umm the idea that Latinos and particularly Mexicans, and I would extend that to central American people as well, this idea that they are particularly for some reason interested in some separatist movement. Or are unwilling to quote-unquote assimilate to this supposed US, white American, Anglo-Saxon, English speaking norm. Which is a norm we need to question to begin with, I would argue. We think about globalization today and what Latin America looks like today and what the us looks like today. Why is this particular norm the privilege status of what is acceptable? And who get to determine what is acceptable and what is not. Who are the folks who are able to make a decision and decide that Latinos are subjects of this debate? Why isn’t someone else the subject of the debate? So this question of culture, which is really a code for race, is imbedded in this political rhetoric about national security and about the nation economy and wellbeing and sovereignty. But it is sort of hidden. It is weaved into the rhetoric. Especially the more vocal people like Samuel Huntington or Lou Dobbs or the founder of the Minutemen Movement. But whether or not you are taking a pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant. No matter where you stand on the question of undocumented immigration, you… there are a certain set of assumptions that are very much ingrained in the logic of the way we think and understand race and equality and culture as people who have grown up in the US. So, you know, there are certain taken for granted assumptions that are there that really go unquestioned but it just as much conditions and shapes the logic of people who might be very much advocating on behalf of the rights of new generation Latino immigrants, as much as it might be people who might be very much concerned about that issue.
CW: How do you think these assumptions impact the immigrants?
JW: Well…some people argue that these discourses or you know the set of ideas, the narratives, structures in society, the sort of way we understand things and the way that structures society. Some people argue that is very much internalized in how people self-govern themselves, right. How people go about their lives. So it could have all sorts of impacts. Certainly we see a climate of fear, a climate of tension especially since the 2006 marches. There has been an extreme reaction to that visibility and that protest against legislations that would have made it a felony to be an illegal immigrant in the US. Since that time of course we have seen a host of hate groups of white supremacy groups that have now begun to target the Latino community. And have even shifted in that direction more so than before when it was more of a racial binary. We also see it in terms of you know people who react as well, right. I think that not everyone chooses to live in a state of fear but when you see high school students who walk out of classes or host sit ins who are undocumented in favor of the dream act. I think that’s really powerful about fearlessness, right. So I think in a lot of ways people don’t stand for being accused of or being generalized as having certain characteristics. Just like, you know, I can’t think of anyone who enjoys enduring a racial or you know stereotype. We don’t like to be, as human beings, we don’t like it when people judge us and generalize us and tell us what we are capable of and what we are incapable of. So I think that those stereotypes also can have a powerful effect in that, you know, some people aren’t afraid to stand up and take risk because they are concerned. They won’t stand for it.
CW: Umm, I know you have worked a lot with the Salvadorian community have they been generalized with the rest of the Latinos? Or do you think they have been viewed separately?
JW: I think that when we talk about the immigration issue or the immigration debate in the US. First it ends up being a debate around Latino immigration. Even though people don’t say that. And second I think that they’re not talking about Chilean immigration. They’re talking about Mexico especially and also especially Central America. There are a lot of Guatemalans Salvadorians Hondurans especially who since the 1980s civil wars and 1990s civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua. Has established a set of flows that have grown out of that displacement. And so Salvadorians do have a presence in the US. And I think it depends on geographic context as well. In Los Angles, Salvadorians are Mexicanized all the way to the level of politics. The Salvadorian community is very established. It’s the largest Salvadorian community outside of San Salvador. It is one of the longest standing outside of San Francisco (loud noise) and folks there struggle to get a seat in the state legislature or in the city council. And leaders of the Salvadorian community have expressed that to me. And then generally Salvadorians face the sort of umm racial stereotype of being lumped in together with the strong Mexican community in California. In Washington DC, where I do a lot of my work, Salvadorians are a salient community. They are the largest immigrant community in the metropolitan Washington dc area. They are the largest contingent of Latinos and they are also an old long standing community that has had a presence there for many decades now. It was one of the first places that people were heading in the sanctuary movement and it became a hub for political organizing in favor of refugee status for Salvadorians escaping the civil war. A status they never really earned they were always unrecognized refugees. And of course as soon as the war ended in 1992, they were then thought of as economy driven labor migrants and were lumped into the category illegal immigrants just as Mexicans and Latinos in general are confronting as a category. So it varies from place to place. Salvadorians are in all 50 states. They’re in countries all over the world. I know Salvadorians in Australia, Sweden, in Italy, in Germany, in Costa Rica. I know people all over the place. So yes they are lumped in with this concern of Latino immigration in particular way, in particular places. They are very much an invisibilized population in that sense because they are lumped in with becoming Latino. When I meet a Salvadorian in Washington DC on the streets they usually ask me ‘oh how exciting you have heard of my country.’ Well yeah I have. I’ve been going there for 12 years. But when you go to El Salvador you realize they are very connected to the United States. They have extremely close political ties ever since the Civil War which the US government funded. They… it seems like every family I meet in El Salvador has family living in the United States. We estimate that a million of the 2 point something million Salvadorians in the US do have a legal status. Several hundred thousand do have TPS and hundreds of thousands more have citizenship or permanent or temporary residency. Many of them were here prior to the amnesty that Reagan offered. And some of those older ties mean that parents may have been raising their kids from the United States who were living in El Salvador, kids who were living in El Salvador and then those kids may be, after a long period of time, eligible for obtaining a residency status as well. So we do have all different kinds of Salvadorian immigration not just illegal or undocumented immigration. It’s a long standing community it’s a changing community. It’s a very…When you go to El Salvador you feel a connection because people speak to you in English. People know where you’re from. People have been to the United States. Many people go back and forth yet in the United States we tend to not see, you know, an entire community of people or understand the difference between or value the difference where they’re from and where other Latinos who are coming to the United States are coming from. The other thing that differentiates Salvadorians, with a stigma, that I think is not warranted is the association with violence, violent society and gang membership. And I don’t like this because of my own experience working in El Salvador. There is the one common assumption is that the gangs, or the quote unquote Salvadorian gang or Mara Salvatrucha. Came from the experience of the war. The civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s in El Salvador. That these were former guerilla fighters or they were exposed to so much violence, that they, that is where they learned things. I don’t buy into that narrative which has been a narrative that has been advocated by some of the initial gang member themselves. But really much of this gang began on the streets of Los Angeles so it was a US problem and it was about exposure to violence in the United States. That was then brought to El Salvador through deportation throughout the 1990s and grew and proliferated to many different countries and states and incorporated a wide range of membership. So really it isn’t a Salvadorian gang anymore. Really it is a Latino based gang…and unfortunately they retain the name Salvatrucha. So people still associate it as an exclusively Salvadorian phenomenon, coming from El Salvador which is the reverse of what it is about. And it has also been linked to this national security discourse as this gang has been talked of as having transnational cells or being part of a sort of terrorist security threat to the United states which is also problematic because it really doesn’t operate in that way. In fact if you talk to scholars who work on this they tell you that they are actually quite disorganized. However it is a serious stigma. I know Salvadorians on the streets in Virginia whose Mexican friends turn to them and make a joke and say ‘hey salvatrucha’ so it’s an everyday, you know, internalization. An everyday thing that people have to deal with, is this stigma of coming from a place that a country that has a history of war… was a very difficult time but it is something Salvadorians have moved past. It happened twenty years ago, it ended 20 years ago. And, umm you know, I meet some of the friendliest most peaceful antiwar people I’ve ever met in that country. And we have to completely throw away any of these myths about culture of violence or cycles of violence. Umm that have also come into these discourses on Latino immigration. I think those are very dangerous, baseless assumptions that are placed upon people to justify particular political objectives.
CW: you have talked about Virginia, and DC and California how do you think the views of immigrants compare to the ones in North Carolina? Like for, are they treated better in North Carolina? Or worse? Is there a better understanding of immigrants in North Carolina?
JW: Well I think that North Carolina is, has always been a very welcoming place. And For me it has been a welcoming, I came from growing up in New York State. People here are very friendly. And so I think they receive new comers really well around here. However like I said there is a lack of information about where people are coming from. And you read the book “The Maya from Morganton” the classic example of you know suddenly schools have to not just teach ESL, but to teach ESL to students who may not even be speaking Spanish. And you may be from highland Guatemala, but people still assume that you are from Mexico or that you eat tacos. So it is really a matter of education and information reaching to areas and communities that are being heavily affected by immigration. Whose only source of information, or whose primary source of information has been media and political debates that are, whether or not we want them to be heavily laden with rhetoric and narratives that are constructed with particular political objectives. To either take a particular stand for or against undocumented immigration or particular stand about how to address that. So having said that, I think the structures weren’t in place. When we saw schools in Raleigh suddenly need ESL teachers that they didn’t have. Or when we suddenly needed immigration lawyers in North Carolina who had good quality training and how to deal with immigration law and have a professional background in that. We were lacking because all of the sudden people were getting jailed or detained, and we didn’t know yet whether or not our state or constitutional laws were being abided by. And that needed…that needs to be determined by… by lawyers and by people who know immigration law well and what the loopholes are and what the ends and outs are. So what happened in North Carolina recently in the last several years is that, all of that has been sort of meshed out through trial and error and it still very much is a trial and error. And we saw that with the local immigration enforcement initiatives that took effect here just like we have all over the country. Where we really don’t know just yet to what extent constitutional laws or federal laws were being upheld or were being called into question or being interpreted in new ways or being violated. So it’s this question of change and rapid change in North Carolina and it’s a question of how to have the infrastructure and the people who have the knowhow to respond to those changes effectively. And unfortunately we just haven’t had that all over the US because things have heated up so much around the question of Latino immigration. That it becomes very emotional a very delicate topic. People don’t want to talk about it. People aren’t interested in learning new perspectives or responding to it in a practical way. And what we see instead are more extreme measures that end up contributing to these tensions. Simply because people don’t know their neighbors yet, and people don’t know where people are coming from. People don’t know whether or not they should believe what they hear in the news or not. So I think that rapid demographic change has made it particularly difficult. However I think that in my experience in North Carolina I have met some communities that have responded to change really, really well as well. In other cases no but you look at what is going when you see local economies that have benefitted and have grown and some people have come to really appreciate that and to appreciate diversity. But we still have a lot of work to do.
CW: Where do you think the public gets there information and their views about Latinos and immigrants?
JW: Well I think that…well I don’t know. I think like what we talked about the media. The mainstream media has particular perspectives. That are shared and in order for media… for the TV stations to get ratings they need to pose the two extremes. And that shapes and conditions our thinking about the issue because we think in very dualist and extreme terms. And we don’t see the common ground. When in reality the common ground, the overlap, might be right in front of us but we just don’t see it. Because we’re always hearing that we have to think about this at odds that we have to be on one side or the other. And I think when we are able to have dialogue that that’s when productive measures to respond to and address the question of undocumented immigration become more widespread and more feasible and more able to be reached. But it’s not until we can have those dialogues that we will be able to make any progress. And so I think that people are getting their information in North Carolina by through personal experience too. You know, I think when you see a person who looks different than you, who speaks a different language who moved in next door to you, or who is suddenly is working for you. You might have a particular set of assumptions initially about that person. But once you get to know them if it is possible if you reach out if they reach out to you, if you can find ways to communicate. Those experiences are really rewarding. And I hear about those experiences all the time from people I know who work in mixed company. That, you know, people are really receptive to and appreciative of diversity and the skills and the knowledge and the customs and the interesting ways of doing things and ways of life that people bring with them when they come to this country or to a home community. So I think it is a matter of learning to understand and appreciate change and appreciate diversity and engage with diversity through experience. And some peoples experiences are positive and some peoples experience are negative but I think people are misinformed if they are… cutting themselves off from being open to diversity and only listening to what they hear from political debates around, around this issue.
CW: What do you see as the future of, you know, views of immigration? Do you think people will get out as more immigrants come that they will…their views will change?
JW: I don’t know what the future is. I didn’t bring my crystal ball. Well we know the United States is changing and Latin America is changing too. And y’all were down in Mexico a few weeks ago and you saw that there were all sorts of retired United States citizens moving to Mexico to the communities that were sending all sorts of Mexicans to the United States. So this is called globalization. We are experiencing demographic shifts in the Americas in other parts of the world as well and we’re becoming more international communities. And so we need to go beyond thinking in national terms. We need to be more open to diversity. And we are certainly going to see that in the United States, as the Latino community becomes a stronger immigrant group and their presence continues to grow and strengthen. So what I think is really, really inspiring for me is as an instructor at UNC is seeing more and more Latino students, first generation second generation students, who are Carolinians who speak with a Carolina accent. Not that that is a good thing or a bad thing. To not be speaking Spanish or to be speaking Spanish. Or to be speaking with a Carolina accent or not. But these are Carolinians, right. And these are people who are part of the United States and have been part of this area and country for a long time now. And you know it is inspiring because you see students who are going on to become doctors or professionals who may be from a family where they were first generation Americans in the family and their parents were doing some pretty hard work as new immigrants to this country and having to learn a language and having to take on jobs that maybe others didn’t want to do. Having to fight for legal status. But I think the future is in the first, second, third generations. People who are from these families that have recently arrived and also the long standing generation of the Latino community that has been a part of this country for decades or even hundreds of years. And I think that mixing of diversity and this ability not to assume that everyone has to assimilate to a certain norm but to accept instead the idea that we are a diverse…this is a diverse country. This is a diverse continent. And that people are always moving and that people have the right to mobility. It’s just a matter of figuring out politically and legislatively the appropriate ways to deal with that reality and to help promote positive social change and cultural change, as we do go forward into the future.
CW: Well thank you for conducting this interview with me.