Last week I had an excellent margarita in Johnson City. Not Johnson City, Texas, my home state, where good margaritas can be found everywhere. No, this was Johnson City, Tenn., at Poblanos Mexican Grill and Bar, where I enjoyed also a fine plate of mahi-mahi and shrimp fajitas.
Not many years ago this kind of cuisine would have been hard to find a thousand miles from our border with Mexico. When I was a kid, my family used to make long driving trips across the northern United States, and when culinary homesickness overtook us, we searched in vain for the beloved enchiladas, tamales and tacos that we enjoyed in Texas.
That’s changed significantly, and it serves as yet another reminder of why the House of Representatives needs to suppress its sanctimony and follow the Senate’s lead in implementing immigration reform that includes a reasonable route to citizenship for the 11 million “illegal” immigrants who are already in our country.
Hispanics have come north across our border with Mexico for decades, legally and illegally. Sometimes we develop fits of consternation over their presence and vow to deport them and reinforce the border. Other times we actively encourage them to come — or at least we look the other way — in order to fill jobs that Americans either don’t want or can’t afford to do.
The jobs many undocumented Hispanics take on are essentially exploitative, but they often are mutually beneficial, as well, providing Hispanics with better wages than they could get at home and providing us with cheap services. And rather than representing a drain on the economy, undocumented workers often fill an important niche and put more into the economy than they take out.
Unfortunately, House Republicans and our country are unlikely to make much progress on immigration reform until we get past the stereotypes often associated with Hispanics, that is, thinking of them as maids and gardeners who sneak across the border and refuse to learn English.
Further, let’s temper our characterization of undocumented workers as “criminals,” even though they are, I suppose. But legal and not legal are slippery terms, not nearly as absolute as people like to think. Sure, it was a long time ago, but if you consider that the Mexican War of 1848 was mostly a trumped-up illegal land grab, which means everyone living south of the Nueces River, which reaches the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Christi, is an illegal alien, including, now that I think of it, me.
So, House Republicans, don’t mischaracterize Hispanics or be so afraid of their culture. Well beyond their cuisine, Hispanics have enriched my part of the country immensely, and as they make their way into the United States, legally or illegally, they’ll have the same effect elsewhere.
Back to Poblanos, in Johnson City, Tenn. There’s no reason to think that anyone connected with it, now or in the past, is doing anything illegal. It merely epitomizes an attractive element of Hispanic culture. The manager/co-owner, a pleasant, polite young guy from California, came by our table to check on things. I asked, “Why Tennessee?”
It had to do with family, which, according to the generalization, Hispanics esteem. He said his uncle came out to Tennessee years ago — something to do with tomatoes — and then a cousin came for college. Somehow eight or nine taco joints were established, and before long three or four Poblanos — well-appointed, upscale restaurants — had been opened in Tennessee and Florida, providing jobs for locals, boosting the economy and giving citizens of the Volunteer State an opportunity to enjoy margaritas as good as any in Texas.
Now, in fact, this writing finds me in Falmouth, Mass., at the base of Cape Cod. The hotel clerk, clearly a native New Englander, recommends Anejo Mexican Bistro and Tequila Bar downtown, where, she says, the margaritas are excellent. Gracias, Mexico!