In a preview of his new book “Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington writes: “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture. … The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

Over a decade ago, conservative millionaire and crusader against bilingual education Ron Unz lodged a similar complaint. Unz wrote that in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: “Suddenly, the happy multicultural California so beloved of local boosters had been unmasked as a harsh, dangerous, Third World dystopia … the large numbers of Latinos arrested (and summarily deported) for looting caused whites to cast a newly wary eye on gardeners and nannies who just weeks earlier had seemed so pleasant and reliable.”

Despite the Ivy League imprimatur that Huntington might lend to Unz’s distortions, both men’s writings participate in a growing anti-Mexicanism that seeks to scapegoat thousands of working families and their children. Add to these irrational commentaries the well-funded attacks by College Republicans at UCLA against the Chicano student organization MEChA and the ongoing vigilante patrols in Texas and Arizona in which armed men hunt the undocumented, and you have what is nothing less than a new nativism.

In such an environment, what does it mean to celebrate a César Chávez holiday? What meaning does such a holiday have if influential figures like Huntington and Unz can unjustly represent people of Mexican descent as a threat to the nation?

The “gardeners and nannies” who once struck fear into Ron Unz’s heart are precisely the people César Chávez fought for his entire life. From the time he completed his tour of duty with the U.S. Navy in 1946, Chávez devoted himself to serving Mexican and Mexican American working families. In 1962, he joined with Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla and others to organize the most exploited of those families – the farm workers in California’s fields.

Living in substandard housing, exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis and working for what was far below a living wage, farm workers delivered the fresh produce that most Americans took for granted. No longer limited to California and the Southwest but now everywhere across the country, farm workers continue to perform this arduous labor in conditions that have improved only slightly.

Today, in urban and rural settings, Mexican and Latin American workers form an integral part of local economies. In agriculture, the service sector, the tourist industry, construction, landscaping and nurseries, and meat and poultry packing, they responsibly go about their business doing jobs that others choose not to do.

Are they a threat to the well being of other workers in the United States, as Professor Huntington would have us believe? A 2000 study of the impact of undocumented workers in Minnesota concluded that “every undocumented worker removed from the economy causes another worker somewhere in Minnesota to lose his or her job.” Given the fact that undocumented labor contributed at least $1.5 billion to the state economy, the study concluded: “If the undocumented workers were removed from Minnesota, economic growth would be suddenly reduced by 40 percent.”

Do these hard-working people who seek to realize the immigrant’s dream of a better life for their children pose a challenge to the traditional culture of the United States? The desire to maintain their language and folkways is certainly no different than that of earlier immigrant groups. We will be happy to have our children learn about Abraham Lincoln, they say, as long as they also know about Benito Juarez. Although the story of the Mayflower is interesting, our family roots lie elsewhere. We are anxious to learn English, but why should we stop speaking and dreaming in Spanish?

The new nativists would have us forget that people of Mexican and Latin American descent have made major contributions in every sphere of activity throughout U.S. history. What the community’s most enlightened leaders like César Chávez have insisted upon is that those contributions be made on our own terms and in a way that ensures the least among us will be treated with dignity and respect.

Just three years before his passing in 1993, Chávez reflected on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. He told the assembled audience: “My friends, as we enter a new decade, it should be clear to all of us that there is an unfinished agenda, that we have miles to go before we reach the promised land. … Our nation continues to be segregated along racial and economic lines. The powers-that-be make themselves richer by exploiting the poor. … The time is now for people, of all races and backgrounds, to sound the trumpets of change.”

In this election year, Chávez’s words ring truer than ever.

Jorge Mariscal is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, a Vietnam veteran, and a former member of MEChA. He can be reached at gmariscal@ucsd.edu. This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune and is reprinted by permission of the author.