This past spring, while Congress was engaging in its usual mock debate about tightening immigration, hundreds of thousands of Mexican-Americans took their case to the streets.  In the first round of demonstrations, Chicanos, waving Mexican flags, demanded rights for illegals and declared that all those who favored enforcing the law were racists.

We all heard and read the same arguments.  Mexicans make an indispensable contribution to the American economy, yet they are treated with disrespect and hostility.  The same propaganda appeared in the Mexican press.  It had a common source: the speeches of President George W. Bush, who has been widely cited in Mexico as an advocate for the illegals.

Although conservative commentators criticized the demonstrators, they were far more hard on the members of Congress who wanted to criminalize illegal entry into the United States.  Across the country, however, rank-and-file conservatives and even some liberals deluged talk radio and newspaper editorial pages with complaints.  “Doesn’t anybody care,” argued the conservatives, “that illegal aliens are in fact illegal?”  Between the rhetoric of the demonstrators and the rhetoric of their critics, there was and is a broad gap.  Part of the gap is the result of the basic disagreement of the two sides; part of it derives from the different loyalties of the two groups—conservatives to their vision of “America the way it oughta be,” and the Latinos to their Mexican-American identity.  But just as apparent in the attitudes of the two groups was a divergent approach to legal and political questions.  For the conservatives, the value of law and order and the U.S. Constitution is taken for granted, like the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration.  For the Mexicans, loyalty to family and nation, love and honor, seemed to take precedence over the conservatives’ 18th-century abstractions.

Every Mexican-rights group complains about the racism and bigotry of Anglo-Americans, and their complaints are not without justification.  Whatever we may say in public, most of us do not much like Mexicans, whom we regard as too irrational, too violent, too passionate.  Americans are hardly unique in having ethnic prejudices.  There has probably never been a time in human history when members of different ethnic groups respected each other.  Greeks despised Romans as crude; Romans despised Greeks as effeminate; and the French and English, many centuries later, played out the same little drama of chauvinism and contempt.  A people defines itself, in part, by rejecting the qualities it attributes to foreigners.  Anglo-Americans display their respect for cleanliness, self-restraint, and lawfulness by deriding Mexicans as dirty, violent, and lawless.  And Mexicans return the compliment, making fun of gringos as stiff, unspiritual, and sexless.

The gringo stereotype is not restricted to ignorant peasants who have never met educated Americans.  Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most important novelist, has spent a great deal of time in America and speaks excellent English.  Although Fuentes has picked up many American friends and admirers, his fiction still perpetuates the familiar self-serving stereotypes and clichés.  In The Old Gringo, the old American (Ambrose Bierce) is a joyless writer who comes to Mexico seeking a beautiful death; the lovely American schoolmarm, whose family has lived the lie of respectability, only finds erotic fulfillment in the embrace of a peasant who has become one of Pancho Villa’s officers.  Colonel Arroyo feels he can share his deepest feelings with the gringuita, because she is

from a land as far away and strange as the United States, the Other World, the world that is not Mexico, the foreign and distant and curious, eccentric, and marginal world of the Yankees who did not enjoy good food or violent revolution or women in bondage, or beautiful churches, and broke with all traditions just for the sake of it, as if there were good things only in the future and in novelty . . .

Since the frontier between Mexico and the United States is moving ever northward, the best snapshot of the American future can be taken in the series of frontier towns that ring the border.  From the West, where San Diego—epitome of American opulence and consumerism—is faced by tacky and squalid Tijuana, which every year launches tens of thousands of illegal immigrants into California’s underground labor markets; to El Paso and Juárez, a common city divided by historical conflicts and a border that is more irritating than relevant; to Del Rio and Acuña, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, McAllen and Reynosa, Brownsville and Matamoros, America and Mexico are redefining themselves and each other in a cultural equivalent of Spanglish.

Mexico and the United States are both known as violent countries, but there are important differences in the style—and the incidence—of criminal violence.  Both are complex countries with varying ethnic and regional traditions.  For example, the states of the American South are proverbial for their high homicide rates, but, in contrast with the large cities of the North, much of the killing in the South is done for personal motives.  Crimes of violence in the United States can also be broken down by ethnicity: Blacks and Hispanics account for well over half the violent crimes, while the rate for white Americans is in line with those in Western Europe.

In 1999, the U.S. homicide rate was 5.7 per 100,000.  This is two to eight times the rate of most countries in Western Europe, but America seems safe when compared with Mexico, which, despite very strict gun laws, has a homicide rate of 17.58.  According to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, “In the categories of murder, rape and robbery, Mexico’s Distrito Federal posts 3 to 4 times the incidence of these crimes than does New York City, greater Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.”

What this means when Mexicans enter the United States can be measured by Ed Rubenstein’s calculations in an important article on In 2003, while about 27 percent of the inmates in federal prisons were aliens, 67 percent of that figure were Mexican—or 18 percent of the total prison population.  When other Latin Americans were added in, the Latino percentage of the federal prison population reached 23 percent.  These aliens are very costly to feed, house, and protect, but since most (as Rubenstein points out) are repeat offenders, they cost taxpayers less in prison than on the outside.

In Europe, America is condemned as a nation of homicidal cowboys, but, as Roger McGrath has shown in his classic Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, the well-armed Old West was a peaceful place.  The old America had her share of tough-guy heroes, but, for the most part, they did their own killing in what were regarded as fair fights.  Men such as Jim Bowie and even John Wesley Hardin did not have men shot in the back, seal off trains in tunnels by dynamiting both sides, or terrorize whole towns—some of Pancho Villa’s more notorious escapades.

Mexico and the United States share a reputation for political violence, but, while America’s ill fame rests largely on four assassinated presidents and several well-publicized riots and police crackdowns (Haymarket Riot, Kent State, the 1968 Democratic Convention), Mexican history is awash in blood.  Among the more famous political killings in Mexico, one might name the last two Aztec rulers, Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc; the two clerical leaders of uprisings against Spain (Father Hidalgo and Father Morelos); emperors Agustín de Iturbide and Maximilian; presidents Madero, Carranza, and Obregón—to say nothing of a more recent string of high-profile killings that includes a Catholic cardinal murdered by drug lords in Guadalajara in 1993; a PRI presidential candidate (Luis Donaldo Colosio) in 1994; a PRI secretary general and majority leader-elect of the lower house (José Francisco Ruíz Massieu) killed by the brother of President Salinas in 1994; a congressman implicated in drugs and murder (Manuel Muñoz Rocha).

These few names do not begin to exhaust a very long list that includes rival political candidates murdered by the PRI, journalists killed by drug lords, thousands of students gunned down in demonstrations (in 1968 and 1971), and the massive suppression of the Chiapas Indians in the 1990’s.

The most celebrated victims of political violence were the two outstanding military leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa.  General Villa is one of the most remarkable men produced by Mexico.  A reckless and daring cavalryman, he was nicknamed the “Centaur of the North” for his exploits in the saddle.  He and his lieutenants also acquired an unsavory reputation for cruelty.  Even before Woodrow Wilson decided to recognize Villa’s rival Venustiano Carranza as the legitimate president of Mexico, Villa had made a habit of killing gringos.  Outraged by what he regarded as American treachery, he launched a punitive expedition against the people of Columbus, New Mexico.  Villa’s men killed about 18 Americans, mostly civilians, but they would have killed many more, had they not been distracted by looting.

Despite his many acts of wanton killing, including (perhaps) the murder of Ambrose Bierce, Villa is unquestionably a great hero in his own country.  In Chihuahua, his house has been turned into a museum of the revolution, and, although the cruelty of his lieutenant Fierro is several times mentioned, the general of the Division of the North is treated with the respect he demanded in life.

There is no hero quite like “Pancho” Villa in American history.  To match his career, one would have to combine the cavalry exploits of Bedford Forrest with Andrew Jackson’s harsh temper and the postwar activities of the Jameses and Youngers, but this hybrid would still lack Villa’s homicidal volatility.

Our mass killers are of a different stamp from either American gunfighters or Mexican bandit-revolutionaries: Villa was unquestionably brave and resourceful, admirable in his own way.  Our homicidal maniacs are respectable men such as William Tecumseh Sherman and the president who sent him on his mission, and Harry S. Truman, who dropped the big ones—not on the Japanese politicians and officers who deserved it, but on civilians.  Ours are men with clean hands who kill with a few words.

When reporters began grilling Donald Rumsfeld about possible war crimes and abuses, his stock response was that “we don’t do those things.”  Indeed, Abu Ghraib probably is exceptional.  Nonetheless, the United States government has an appalling record of what would be called war crimes if they were committed by any other nation.  To name only a few examples of war against civilians: the conquest of the Philippines; the bombing of Belgrade and Novi Sad; and the burning of Columbia, South Carolina.  Who knows what decent people will say of the nearly one million civilian deaths attributed to the Gulf War and subsequent embargo, or the total mess we have made of Iraq over the past three years?

American violence was summed up for me by the words of a little girl playing fire-control officer on a submarine during the bombing of civilian centers in Yugoslavia.  She explained to the cameras that she just sent the missiles and did not think about where they landed.  Judges and politicians display a similar insouciance in not thinking about the tens of millions of infants murdered with their permission.  Mexican-American immigrants, by contrast, are generally more pro-life than American natives, and some even refused to vote for their would-be Democratic patrón, John Kerry, because of his outspoken support for a woman’s right to kill her child.

Some American Catholics think we should welcome the hordes of pro-life Catholics swarming across our southern border, but this is a mistake.  Mexicans quickly become acclimated to America’s culture of consumerism and infanticide.  What they do not appear to relinquish is their own traditional style of violence.

Unfortunately, Americans, who have lost faith in their traditions and in their God, are as likely to resist the invasion from the south as they are to combat Islamic terrorism.  Liberal to the core, we lack the most basic survival instincts.  Nearly five years after September 11, our leaders still think they are “fighting terrorism” in Iraq, while they are refusing either to defend our borders or to contain the spreading virus of Islam in our society.

Many Mexican immigrants know who they are.  They can name their grandparents; they love their country; and, in their own passionate way, they worship their God and love their Church.  If you attack what they love, some Mexicans, instead of acknowledging your right to disagree, just give you a taste of rough justice.  If only we could convince them that their real enemies are the Muslims who have slandered Our Lord and His Mother.  Then they could fight the battle we are afraid to fight, and, when they have reconquered North America, they would have earned it.