A Tale of Two Cities

Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority

by Peter Skerry
Free Press, 463 pp., $27.95

Last June in California the Great University Rebellion that began three decades ago with marches and sitins for civil rights finally seemed to exhaust itself. The occasion, a hunger strike on the UCLA campus, when nine people stopped eating for two weeks, was the climax of demonstrations throughout the spring in favor of a new, independent Chicano Studies department. When the strike finished it was hard to discover which side had prevailed. Chancellor Charles E. Young promised new resources and hiring authority to an existing Chicano Studies program, but refused to call it a full academic department. Still the depleted strikers, whom supporters pushed in wheel-chairs from their army surplus tents to greet reporters, chew bits of tortilla dipped in salsa, and wave the Mexican flag, insisted they had won everything except the name change.

As it happened, certain developments outside the university made the arguments on either side begin to look somewhat beside the point. Administrators at UCLA put a good face on and invited everyone back into the serious, harmonious, bountiful fold of university life, but there was also news that a fiscal crisis in California had forced them to phase out the swimming team, the gymnastics team, and the schools of nursing, public welfare, and architecture. As for the strikers, a medical school professor who had fasted with the students assured the crowd of four hundred supporters that their work would “keep alive the flame that was ignited by Cesar Chavez.” But outside the narrow cultural reach of academe, it was hard to see where Mexican American interests had advanced. One day after the strike ended, Los Angeles chose a venture capitalist for mayor, Richard Riordan, whose platform rested in part on the idea that America had already given too much away to its minorities, and had better stop. A month and a half after that, in August, California Governor Pete Wilson suggested that his recession-drained state could save money by stripping US citizenship from the children of undocumented Mexicans—stripping it even from children who were born here, who spoke English better than they spoke Spanish, and who had never in their lives been to Mexico.

The strike happened too late to appear in Peter Skerry’s scrappy, Machiavellian new study of Mexican Americans, but the episode would support the thesis of his book. Skerry believes the crisis Mexican Americans face is not of the kind that more faculty appointments and better reading lists will settle. In fact he ignores altogether the cultural question of whether Mexican Americans should “assimilate” or whether we should recognize them as held together by a singular history and set of beliefs. (One guesses early on that he both wants them to assimilate and believes the whole debate that is framed in academic fights like the one at UCLA to be a distraction from the real problem.) Skerry’s map is instead of political power. Where have Mexican Americans twisted arms on an issue that concerned them? Where have they served …

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