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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 on the school board? Where have they been moved to vote in large numbers, with or without the encouragement of reconfigured, single-member electoral districts? Where (the most practical test) have their sewers been drained and their potholes fixed?

Skerry has set his antenna to pick up the subtlest local shift in the balance. He also has a moralist’s compulsion to point out evasions the whole country seems to be settling for. In all but a few respects, his view is depressing. Scattered in pockets around the margins are Mexican American activists, understandably moved by the course of black civil rights since the 1960s, but now counting too much on the “moral high ground of race” to knock down every kind of obstacle. In the center is our hollowed-out, exhausted political system. Our politicians have a more cosmopolitan finish than they used to, but the stands they take are dictated by “pollsters, media consultants, direct-mail wizards, issue experts, and other specialists.” Churches, schools, unions, local newspapers, political parties—the “mediating institutions” that used to ease people into America’s mainstream—have all petrified. Add to this the continued economic slump, and there are far fewer openings for newcomers than there were when the last large wave of immigrants landed here in the 1920s.

To judge by his background, it is surprising that Skerry should have written such a usefully didactic book. He is an academic, for one thing, whose work was supported by Washington think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution) that are themselves good examples of the self-enclosed political culture he criticizes. Nor does he seem personally objective; one senses long-established and sometimes partisan convictions. In his acknowledgments, he appreciates the “friendship, loyalty, and grit” of Linda Chavez, a former director of the US civil rights commission under Reagan, who since the early 1980s has been something of an all-purpose conservative spokesman on Mexican American affairs. Chavez, in her book Out of the Barrio, argued that Mexican Americans deserve no handouts or extra solicitude from the government, since they were never legally enslaved or kept from voting to the extent that blacks were. Her only advice seems to be that they imitate the up-by-the-bootstraps stoicism that is supposed to characterize Asian immigrants: that they find their equivalent of a drycleaning store, and open for business.

Conservatives may instruct Mexican Americans to strike out all on their own, but political power is still about more than one person, and more than a family unit. On the other hand, power can have startlingly little to do with abstract issues of policy. There are human qualities to be considered, such as the selflessness, idealism, force of personality, trickery, and envy that draw people into politics, and that in different ratios determine who has the upper hand. Power in this concrete sense is a subject usually best left to fiction, which Skerry seems to understand, since he has constructed his book with considerable drama as a tale of two cities. Detailing his twenty months of field work in San Antonio and Los Angeles, the historic hubs of Mexican American politics, he could be a twentieth-century Trollope or Disraeli scouting out the backdrops to his next undertaking:

In addition to interviewing, I have spent much of my time as an observer, and occasional participant-observer, of Mexican-American politics in action. I have spent many hours in community meetings; political rallies; campaign headquarters and outposts; parish meeting halls; lawyers’ and politicians’ offices; bars, restaurants, and after-hours hangouts… [several more locales, each more specific than the last]…a judge’s private chambers; a printer’s shop; and a margarita-tasting contest.

As in a good, old-fashioned political novel, he gives, for comparison to the current widespread cynicism, an account of a late-surviving province of relative innocence. If the TV hype, insular professional elites, and atomizing freeway sprawl of Los Angeles represent our “possible, if not inevitable, political future,” Skerry writes with evident nostalgia that San Antonio “harkens back to our Jacksonian past.” There are remnants in South Texas of a democracy that respects little people, with elected officials who still know how to shake down the government and pass the goods along to constituents. Mexican American leaders in Texas are “the most experienced, skillful, and successful in the nation.” The most colorful and productive episodes in Mexican American politics—rough equivalents to Montgomery, Alabama, and the old political machine in Chicago, with moments of intrigue to match Louisiana’s—happened there as well.

The south Texan talent for maneuvering turns out, it is not surprising to learn, to have grown hand in hand with a cruel and inflexible social arrangement. On top were settlers from the Midwest, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and immigrants from various other European countries, all of whom the region roped into the single amorphous category of “Anglo.” There was also a small but comfortable Mexican American elite, which claimed (often dubiously) pure Spanish colonial ancestry, along with some well-to-do exiles from the Mexican Revolution added early in this century. Most of the Mexican Americans, however, sat at rock bottom, unambiguously poor and trod upon.1 They attended separate, shoddy schools and were subject to roundups and abuse by the Border Patrol. Poll taxes were used to discourage them from voting. Tuberculosis swept through their neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio, which was so overcrowded and bereft of city services that the Peace Corps, when it started out, used to send volunteers there to ready themselves for work in third world shantytowns.

It had been the strategy of the first civil rights groups for Mexican Americans, the patriotic, upbeat League of United Latin American Citizens, and the American GI Forum, both of which were founded in Corpus Christi, to try to prove to Anglos that they had none of the ugly qualities associated with “Meskins,” that they were in fact solid, straight-arrow Americans. But longstanding resentments crept to the surface by the late 1960s, and the idea arose that if people had been kept down for the simple fact of being Mexican American, that fact—their identity—should play some part in getting the boot off their necks. In 1968, the Ford Foundation gave money to a local attorney to create the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), a lobby that would pattern its work on desegregation and voting and immigrant rights after that of the NAACP. From St. Mary’s University came another Chicano star, José Angel Gutiérrez, who started a new “populist-nationalist” political party, La Raza Unida, and directed a highly publicized takeover of the school board and the city council in his depressed south Texas hometown of Crystal City—the “spinach capital of the world.”

Yet Skerry tells us that after a few years most of the Texan Chicano activists drifted into the Democratic Party, or, when they wanted their work and their message to carry to other parts of country, simply left the state for Washington or bigger, richer California. Obviously these places drew talent away because they were better set up for national organizing, but Skerry thinks the flipside was also true: the people at home were simply losing interest in the Chicano movement. Preoccupations in Texas remained local and present-tense. In-roads into Anglo territory began at last to be made from the inside. The best-known example is Henry Cisneros, who went back east for a masters degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. at George Washington and returned to be elected to the city council and then, at thirty-four, to the mayor’s office. But Cisneros is not quite typical, because his early career was sponsored by Anglo businessmen and because he, too, eventually left for Washington and a seat in Clinton’s cabinet.

Skerry uses the social science term “friends-and-neighbors politics” to describe the streetcorner networking by which Mexican Americans were sent to the city council and elected county judge, county clerk, and tax collector in the 1970s and 1980s. Campaigns were hatched over kitchen tables, at barbecues. The popular “Three Panchos,” a congressman, a city councilor, and a state senator, former Chicano activists who had grown up together on San Antonio’s South Side, built a political base around a baseball league, one team per parish, with jerseys, caps, and bats and balls for anyone who wanted to play.

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    According to Skerry “the Anglo-Mexican cleavage” is so fundamental to San Antonio’s self-image that the black population, currently about 7 percent, is for all practical purposes invisible.

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