Symbols and Self-Reliance


Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, by Peter Skerry, New York: The Free Press, 400 pages, $27.95

The media, the public, our schools all refer to Mexican-Americans as a single ethnic group with a common culture and common goals. Even Mexican-Americans often accept this umbrella identity. Yet the Mexican-American experience in the United States is ambivalent and diverse. We do not speak with a single voice. Peter Skerry, director of Washington Programs for the UCLA Center for American Politics and Public Policy, probes this ambivalence in Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority.

Mexican-Americans, he notes, often remind us that "some of us have been here for three hundred years, some for three days." Some are fully assimilated into mainstream America; others have just begun that process.

Assimilation, says Skerry, will occur, even for newcomers. The key question, however, is how the newcomers will blend into the broader American culture. In answering this question, he raises some fundamental dilemmas faced by today's Mexican-Americans. His analysis is largely on target, though the reader wades through a lot of sociological mumbo-jumbo on the way to absorbing his message.

Skerry sees the Mexican-American community deeply divided between two paths to assimilation. One is a path through which Mexican-Americans gain a foothold in mainstream local political and economic institutions. This is the traditional immigrant path of empowerment. The other is a path of playing—permanently—the role of victim, of "racially oppressed minority."

Skerry explores these two alternatives by looking at the Mexican-American political culture in San Antonio, Texas, and contrasting it with that in Los Angeles. This tale of two cities underscores the two dramatically different models of assimilation. Mexican-Americans in San Antonio have followed the traditional immigrant story of generational success. In Los Angeles, paralleling the experience of African-Americans, they increasingly cling to the image of victim of oppression and segregation.

Skerry's description of this contrast is both accurate and troubling. In part the split is responsible for tensions between Latino youths and their parents. The latter, according to public opinion surveys, still tend to adhere to the American dream of participation in mainstream economic advancement and in the larger American political arena. Latino parents, for the most part, still believe that hard work leads to success.

Youths, by contrast, are increasingly inclined to blame racism for their troubles. As a result, they press for entitlements to redress their grievances. And Mexican-American leaders, especially politicians, are expected to push the Mexican-Americans-as-victim thesis. Yet catering to those pressing this thesis puts Latino leaders at odds with a large segment of the Latino working community.

Moreover, the fruits of this "victim" politics are meager, or even counterproductive. Several decades ago in my community, Latinos established one of the first Mexican-American community centers in the United States, La Casa de la Raza. The center sprang from the efforts of countless local volunteers. A product of neighborhood collaboration, it served as a cultural and community mecca of local Mexican-Americans.

Today, La Casa is crumbling; it is no longer a real community meeting place. Somewhere along the way, Mexican-Americans, mostly young "activists," turned La Casa into a pulpit for the politics of victimhood. They pursued government funding for its operations, abandoning the self-sufficiency of La Casa's beginnings. What had seemed like easy money instead turned into dependence. Now, the Latino community that La Casa had served is truly a victim—a victim of the political tack taken by those activists who wrestled it away from the mainstream Latino community. Once-plentiful public funds have dried up, and, with La Casa cut off from the neighborhood that created it, there isn't enough private money or helping hands to fill the void.

How could this change in Mexican-American politics have occurred? Why has the path of the newcomer begun to diverge from that of his predecessors who got a foothold in America in earlier centuries?

Skerry pins some of the responsibility on civil-rights law and jurisprudence over the past 30 years. Our legislators and our courts have created a body of law that emphasizes racial criteria as a basis for rights violations, moving away from the Founding Fathers' focus on "blind" justice and individual rights.

For Mexican-Americans, this evolution in civil-rights law has helped spur some efforts at assimilation. For example, voting-rights laws, with a focus on racial "fairness," have prompted the redrawing of district lines in a number of communities, Los Angeles included, to promote election of Latinos to office. While this may have resulted in some political representation, it also has kept Latinos locked into a self-definition as outsiders.

By contrast, in communities like San Antonio, Mexican-Americans have not relied on carving out special districts to gain representation. Instead, like other immigrant groups, they have relied on neighborhood organizations, churches, and family connections to build a power base and enter the world of politics.

Skerry's most provocative discussion emerges as he examines how these processes influence the content of political goals and the focus of political protest. "In Texas," he writes, "Mexican Americans protested because they felt excluded from the social, economic, and political system, and they 'wanted in.'" They largely succeeded, "and protest has virtually disappeared."

"But," continues Skerry, "in the much more favorable setting of California, Mexican Americans have already gotten 'in'—compared, at least, to their Texas counterparts. Deprived of the obvious barriers upon which their ideology nevertheless continues to fixate, Chicano activists in California have pursued more expressive, symbolic concerns. Lacking concrete objectives, their protest endures as dramaturgy." And, since the protest is symbolic, there is no endpoint, no comfortable assimilation. Instead, there is a constant demand for special recognition—through redistricting, or special social programs, or affirmative action and group rights.

The Texas model, on the other hand, is a politics of self-reliance. Under this approach, says Skerry, "the frequently invoked 'Iron Rule' is: 'Don't do for people what they can do for themselves.'"

Skerry sees this self-reliant, community-organizing approach as waning, in part because of changes in American political institutions generally. "Contemporary American political institutions and culture," he writes, "encourage Mexican Americans to define all their grievances in racial terms." Even Mexican-Americans who have been here the longest and who have been most integrated into mainstream institutions have stepped up their complaints about discrimination.

Skerry suggests that these complaints may not reflect actual conditions. "Our post-civil rights institutions," Skerry argues, "encourage today's Mexican Americans to define discrimination much more broadly than earlier generations did and, at the same time, to interpret an array of problems similar to those experienced by immigrants generally as manifestations of racial prejudice."

This perspective poses a problem for Mexican-Americans: The substantial evidence of their actual upward mobility suggests that "Mexican Americans such as these must grapple not with obstacles to assimilation, but with its consequences…the 'corrosive' impact of cultural assimilation on their lives.'" Skerry argues that this perception of assimilation as corrosive emerges from what are essentially two contradictory beliefs.

On the one hand, these political protesters view American society as a racist one that won't permit them to assimilate. On the other hand, they perceive that assimilation as "an inexorable and insidious process that must be resisted at all costs." The result, says Skerry, is confusion—and opportunities for advocacy groups like MALDEF (the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund) "whose fortunes depend on sustaining the politics of minority grievances."

Skerry is right, but only to a point. The Mexican-American community is divided, and the divisions are evident not only between, say, Los Angeles and San Antonio, but within the many small and medium-sized communities that dot the California landscape and boast large numbers of second, third, or even sixth-generation Mexican-Americans.

As Skerry says, these Mexican-Americans have strong community ties and mediating institutions that bind them to the larger American political, economic, and social world. At the same time, Mexican-Americans, especially youths, feel pressure to play the politics of protest.

Like conservative African-Americans, Mexican-Americans find it difficult simply to pursue the American dream and become part of the fabric of American life. Instead, we are supposed to embrace "protest" politics and claim entitlements and special status. We are not supposed to align with conservatives who want to carve out a bigger role for family, church, and community, while limiting the scope of government in our lives.

Still, Skerry overstates this trend. In small towns like my own, the pull of family, church, and community remains strong. Even in cities like Los Angeles, the Latino business community is resisting the politics of victimhood. And nationwide opinion polls show Latinos often endorsing traditional American values.

Skerry also overstates the tension between assimilation and the desire to maintain a cultural identity. His own discussion of San Antonio illustrates that assimilation into mainstream political and economic life can occur without sacrificing cultural identity. In fact, this prospect is especially likely among Mexican-Americans because they benefit from a continued infusion of new Mexican arrivals who bring with them a strong cultural identity.

These caveats only slightly temper Skerry's point. The pull in the big cities—like Los Angeles—may be toward the politics of victimhood, in which a handful of self-appointed elites attempt to manage the concerns of the Mexican-American population. They manage them not by helping Mexican-Americans to assimilate but by playing off the frustrations of more recent immigrants and encouraging discontent and a racially defined identity.

Yet this path is bankrupt; it has little to offer the growing ranks of Mexican-Americans, especially the emerging middle class. That may explain why so many Mexican-Americans abandoned their traditional Democratic allegiances in two big political contests in 1993. Some 43 percent of the "Hispanic" vote went to Republican Richard Riordan in the L.A. mayoral election. And a large block of Mexican-Americans voted for Republican Kay Hutchison in the Texas race to fill former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's vacated seat.

Democratic politics is increasingly the politics of victims. But as the countless subsets of victims vie for a place on the Democratic Party's agenda, Mexican-American interests get lost in the shuffle. In part, they get lost in the shuffle because many Mexican-Americans don't see themselves as victims. By contrast, Republican politics, however inadequate, offer at least the rhetoric of family values and pursuit of the American dream, both of which appeal to many Mexican-Americans.

Skerry's tale is not really about Democrats or Republicans. But it is in the voting booth that we may increasingly see the tensions in Mexican-American political culture played out.

Mark Martinez is a City Council member in Carpintería, California.