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.
Mexican Americans, in other words, learned to work the same loose Texas style that in its meanest “beer and tamales” form had allowed LBJ, when he was a young congressional secretary, to set up in a San Antonio hotel room handing out five-dollar bills to Mexican Americans with instructions on whom to vote for. Brazen graft and vote-buying do no one any good, but a mild bit of patronage seems to have helped Mexican Americans; certainly when compared to a system like Los Angeles’s, in which a political novice requires huge sums of money and a staff of handlers to even contemplate a run for office, it does not seem so awful.
To Skerry, the slight rise in Mexican American city council membership after 1976, when the Voting Rights Act was extended to San Antonio, is simply more proof that the people there were already experienced, and ready to seize any new advantage. “The VRA cannot will Mexican-American political power into being,” he writes, and, “All the VRA did was take the lid off a pot that was already boiling.” Just as good an index to the rise in political fortunes, he believes, is Mexican Americans’ increasing success in landing the most ingratiating municipal jobs; a group of court appointees and lawyers and politicians have become expert, for example, at “processing” parking tickets.
Still San Antonio politics are dangerously “rambunctious” and “chaotic” and even sometimes “venal,” and “friends-and-neighbors” alliances, unbound by rules or contracts, may suddenly disintegrate. (Witness the Three Panchos, who quarreled recently, and are now only Two.) For its stability Skerry admires a highly successful grassroots group, the Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), which operates chapters in twenty-five of San Antonio’s Catholic parishes. COPS was founded in 1974 by Ernesto Cortes, who had been a protégé of the Chicago-based radical Saul Alinsky. Skerry slows down for sixty fascinating pages for an account of Alinsky’s methods and their application in Texas. Arriving at this odd centerpiece, almost halfway through the book, we suddenly realize that we have barely learned a thing so far about who Mexican Americans are, or how they live. We begin to suspect that it is for this sermon on pure organization building, in which Mexican Americans just happen to be involved, that Skerry has been preparing us.
What COPS does is transform “informal, primary group ties between friends and neighbors into the instrumental ties binding members of a formal organization.” In practical terms, COPS’s first priority is strengthening COPS. The group’s leaders are mostly working-class Mexican American women, housewives, whose effectiveness comes from the unlikelihood of their breaking off to pursue their own ambitions. The leaders scorn government funding. (Back in the 1960s, Alinsky had called the War on Poverty “political pornography.”) They take on only “winnable issues” such as street paving and police protection. They run no candidates for office. They make no big show of “ethnic pride,” but will use Spanish among themselves when this helps to intimidate their targets. They are irritated by liberals, hippies, college snobs, and all types of ideologues, but will work with them, as they will with an entrepreneur or a hack politician, when the terms are good. They can be vulgar and provocative when they have to; Skerry tells a pre-COPS Alinsky anecdote from Rochester, New York, in 1965, in which Alinsky won his point after he warned an adversary “that his people would be holding a bean supper and then attending the symphony en masse.”
However, bargaining is preferred to the loud provocation on television or in the press. At training sessions, COPS organizers discuss the Catholic social doctrine that Skerry sums up as “mediation and diversity” with Jesuitical expertise. Indeed, he sees parallels with the Catholic hierarchy. COPS too has
clear lines of authority. Consistent with their role as teachers, the organizers are unquestionably in charge. There is a “lead organizer,” who in turn answers to superiors within the IAF network. Working under him or her usually is a “number two organizer.” Both may have trainee organizers working with them. While the number two typically works in the field with local parish chapters, the lead focuses on organizational strategy and works with key leaders. Presumably because of their heavy investment in leadership development, organizers seem not at all hesitant to identify which leaders are—and are not—worth their time.
The playing down of race and class, the relative unimportance of “reforms” to be debated, the candor about power among human beings: What Skerry asks for is a return to the pragmatism of the old-style political machine. This is so remote from the politics we’re shown on television—the faceless politics in which opinion surveys separate people by race, class, and their yes or no on various “issues”—as to seem almost a fantasy. And to some extent perhaps it is. Skerry’s ideal organizee is self-knowing, settled in his neighborhood, disciplined, accepting of hierarchies, suspicious of utopian rhetoric. These qualities are not particularly American strengths, and one wonders how many American cities besides San Antonio could support something like COPS.
One certainly doesn’t need to read this book to realize that Californians, voters for Proposition 13 and restless seekers of the fresh start, would not be especially hospitable. Yet it is still startling to read how badly the COPS offshoot in Los Angeles stumbled. Ernesto Cortes arrived in East LA to found the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) in 1976. After an early success reducing auto insurance rates, UNO came up against the Catholic hierarchy. Ever since the 1960s, when James Francis Cardinal McIntyre (“Little Hitler” to liberals) set the hostile tone by punishing priests who supported Cesar Chavez’s grape strikes, the Church in Los Angeles has tended to discourage even the most nonpartisan civic involvement and to keep aloof from the neighborhoods. Denied a stable of churchgoers to tap, UNO organizers used up their time just trying to reach people. They staged costly, one-shot “fiestas,” and set up behind ironing boards in Los Angeles malls to recruit new members, ingenious but only makeshift strategies.
They did backflips for the attention of the media, but lost all control over the coverage when it came. On the rare occasions when reporters decided to do an “East LA story,” they wrote up protesters and their targets Hollywood-style, as difficult, warring “personalities,” or if they were especially sympathetic they presented a sentimental victim scenario utterly at odds with the IAF philosophy of competence and self-reliance. Out of a hunger to be noticed, activists, too, would sometime add too much sugar. A confrontation with the sheriff which in San Antonio would have been terse and adversarial typically ended in Los Angeles with everyone, including the sheriff, linking arms, straining for the photo op and the caption.
The obvious reason why newspapers and TV were more important to UNO than they had been to COPS was the city’s huge size and ethnic and racial variety: there hadn’t been strong black or Asian communities to compete with in San Antonio. To complicate matters, though, UNO had to compete in Los Angeles with Mexican Americans who practiced a different style of politics. In addition to UNO organizers, there was a stratum of Chicano activists, such as last spring’s protesters at UCLA, who were less involved in local politics and neighborhood upkeep, more concerned with getting some kind of redress for past injuries and for still-living prejudices. Skerry grossly exaggerates these activists’ distance from the mainstream, painting them as “an assortment of orthodox Communists, unaffiliated leftists, Marxist academics, and union militants” who thwart good efforts “with the intense disdain that only ideological leftists can summon for practical men of affairs.”
His more important point is the absence in California of the pragmatic Texan ethos of compromise and adjustment. San Antonio, as Skerry describes it, is a claustrophobic little hamlet (even though it has a population of about a million). Los Angeles by comparison seems like a vast open trampoline. Specialized causes occasionally soar or plummet; perhaps there is some dynamic holding it all together, but this is so hard to calculate that the people involved pay attention only to their own rise and fall.
And there are still other players: most notably, the Mexican American “politicos” who work in what Skerry calls the “elite-network” style, with neither the local nuts-and-bolts approach of IAF organizers nor the idealism of the Chicanos. For this small group of elected officials and appointees, careers, according to Skerry, are all that matters. He is particularly hard on California State Senator Art Torres, Los Angeles City Councilor Richard Alatorre, and their staff protégés. Unlike the old neighborhood-centered machine politicians, Skerry complains, members of the network like Torres barely get to know their constituents. They self-consciously assert their Mexican American identity for the professional access it gets them to “staff positions, consulting contracts, commission appointments.” They live “in places like South Pasadena, immediately adjacent to the barrio but suburban, affluent, and predominantly Anglo,” and use their state government in Sacramento to get “parachuted” into districts in East LA.
One thinks again of Trollope for a comparable picture of the career politician’s life—of how consuming an ordeal it is, for example, simply to raise money and find the right mentor. Alatorre and Torres have both benefited, according to Skerry, from their connection to Willie Brown, California’s powerful black Democratic state assembly speaker.2 Alatorre supported Brown when he ran for speaker in 1984; Brown appointed Alatorre to committees; Alatorre helped to raise more money. Torres also supported Brown; Brown got him access to campaign funds for his senate campaign in 1984; Torres got to be chief spokesman for the Mondale campaign.
But here we are back to the sins committed in every corner of American politics, to the by now old saw of the professional insider. The problem is by no means confined to Mexican Americans: nearly every feature of government in California, it turns out, excludes newcomers. The cost of running for office ($160,000 in 1983 for a Los Angeles school-board seat paying $12,000 a year, and the price has undoubtedly risen) is prohibitive. And anyway, there are proportionally far fewer local offices to run for (52 counties, for instance, compared to Texas’s 254). Instead, there are statewide commissions and boards, to which one is appointed rather than elected—for which, in other words, one needs above all good inside connections. (Skerry notes that California’s system was designed by Progressives early in this century using the anonymous, centralized corporation as a model. The official justification was that it would remove opportunities for corruption, but the Progressives also clearly hoped to keep ethnic immigrants from rising the way the Irish and Italians had risen through patronage in Boston and New York.)
It is Skerry’s real contribution to connect the so-called “racialization” of politics with the feeling people have in general (heard in the sermons by Ross Perot and Jerry Brown during the last presidential campaign) that our politics have closed up and removed themselves from view. The Mexican American “elite network” stresses its Mexican American-ness not out of any deep insistence on racial difference, but because it helps a few people to drive a wedge into Los Angeles’s historically closed government. The difficulty for Mexican American politicians is that the ethnic identity that works at first to include them makes their base fragile—it’s not the same thing as real, lasting political power. For one thing, the network’s Democratic sponsors, who still hold most of the strings, are actually reluctant to register new Mexican American voters for fear they’ll turn out to be Republican. (In the mayoral runoff last June, 43 percent of Latinos, according to the Los Angeles Times, did end up voting for Riordan.) This means, according to Skerry, that “there are few incentives for Mexican-American office-holders to undertake the arduous task of organizing their districts,” that the incentive is rather to “encourage passivity among their constituents.” Also, those second- and third-generation Mexican Americans in California are more mobile than those in Texas, more apt to marry non-Latinos and leave the barrio for the Valley and become indistinguishable from the Anglos. As Skerry puts it, the dynamic
is the opposite of what critics typically charge—namely, that Mexican-American leaders and advocacy groups seek to control their constituents by isolating them, linguistically and culturally, in barrio enclaves. On the contrary, these leaders know better. They understand firsthand the powerful social, cultural, and economic forces that are drawing Mexicans into the mainstream of American life.
The network’s ground is shaky. Its members lobby Sacramento and form caucuses and committees to represent the Mexican American view, but as proof of a distinctly Mexican American view that needs representing, they depend, more and more, on the numbers of new, yet to be assimilated immigrants from Mexico to make their point. This strategy works in the short term, but it has an important drawback: a majority of these immigrants aren’t yet allowed to vote.
A telling irritability appears when Skerry gets to the problem of immigration: though he never states it outright, his final two chapters sneak in the idea that we should stop letting so many Mexicans into the country. He is not surprised that since the economy turned downward certain conservatives like Pete Wilson have begun to break the “notable conspiracy of silence” on this issue, and he hints darkly that “the resentment of the broader society” might soon follow. Curiously, Skerry offers little evidence of the real impact on the economy of undocumented Mexican workers, though this is the usual arguing point whenever people disagree about immigration. Nor does he seem too concerned that new arrivals might simply keep to themselves and refuse to adapt. Indeed, from its odd nostalgic reasoning, one has to wonder, again, whether the subject of Mexican Americans isn’t really much broader than the title suggests: something like the moral condition of the America that immigrants these days find when they get here.
Skerry’s reasoning goes like this. The last time foreigners arrived in America in such enormous numbers, in the early part of this century, they went first to cities in the Northeast and the Midwest. Their adjustment to American democracy was gradual. Often nativeborn Americans were upset by their apparent clinging to “premodern” customs from Southern and Eastern Europe, by their “tribal loyalties and the buying and selling of votes.” Sometimes, too, the local government was corrupt and abusive. But at least the government was somewhat porous. Also, the immigrants’ neighborhoods overflowed with settlement houses and churches to serve as anchors and instructors during their reorientation. In short, there were good enough signs for “a level-headed few” intellectuals who witnessed this process of “social control,” especially the sociologist Robert Park and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, to remain hopeful: immigrants could learn to be Americans.
Today there are a few isolated groups, like COPS in San Antonio, to help with the transition, but it depresses Skerry that the experience of the immigrant from Mexico is more likely alienated, hedonistic California, where neighborhood “bridging institutions” and door-to-door pavement pounding have been replaced by television and computer-targeted direct mail. Bad, corrupt examples are everywhere: a fortress-like government, a reactive habit of protest, a media trained since the 1960s to believe that impatience is always virtuous. For Mexican Americans, the result is a race-based politics that doesn’t go beyond the “jump-start”:
However emotionally and programmatically gratifying this perspective may be to its elite practitioners, Anglo and Mexican, [it] offers little help to newcomers struggling to make sense of their new lives. Nor does it offer them much hope of appreciating the responsibilities, as well as rights, that await them as participants in the American experiment.
There is so much to agree with here. Yet one can’t help feeling that behind Skerry’s concern is a sense that the new immigrants, unlike the previous generation of Europeans or the supposedly static, neighborhood-bound Texans, don’t somehow know their place. One hears an echo of paternalism in his complaint that in Los Angeles, “climate, geography, and social mores all conspire to lure people away from the churches and onto the freeways.” Perhaps this unease leads him to overstate the extent to which Mexican American elected officials stick to a single party line, while signs actually point to their becoming less “programmatic” and more fluid. During the campaign for Mayor in Los Angeles, Richard Alatorre broke with Art Torres and other backers of the Democrat Michael Woo to support Riordan. And a number of politicians, following Pete Wilson’s dramatic open letter to the White House in August, have begun to propose immigration restrictions so as not to appear out of step.
Immigration will be a determining issue in several mid-term contests next year (not incidentally, in Pete Wilson’s re-election bid). Skerry is right to insist that the debate be concrete, that it take place as much as possible in town meetings and not via computer-targeted direct mail. On the other hand, we would do well to hold on to many of the lessons of the civil rights era. Skerry repeats stories people told him about life along the border, including one about Texas Rangers early in this century who used to drive around the town of McAllen “with a dead Mexican draped on either fender.” He understands why such memories have entered “the Mexican American folk consciousness,” but he regrets the fact that they help to “nurture a minority-group identity.” Yet surely the meanest nativist has his “story” and his “folk consciousness,” too. One can share Skerry’s qualms about the tendentiousness of a strictly race-based politics. But one should also guard against swinging too far the other way, so that pointing out an injustice comes to be seen as mere rhetoric, a distraction from the business at hand.
December 16, 1993
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. ↩
An even more cynical farm system in the Republican party has begun to attract a few young, ambitious Mexican Americans, one of whom explained to Skerry that “the line is shorter over there.” ↩