The faces and places on his official website are telling, especially for a politician like Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles. There he is on the Flash-animated header, taking batting practice with the Dodgers. Laughing with the ebullient Magic Johnson. Posing comfortably with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Smiling for the camera at the side of U.S. President Bill Clinton. He doesn’t look out of place; far from it. He looks as comfortable and commanding as any United States politician ever will, as if he were born into the role.
Except for one major thing: He’s the first Mexican-American mayor of Los Angeles since Cristobal Aguilar, who took office back in, believe it or not, the year 1866. That was about 16 years after the city was incorporated into the state of California and America as a whole, and around 50 years after Aguilar was born there, when Los Angeles was still just a Virreinato de Nueva Espana, or Viceroyalty of New Spain. In other words, Antonio Villaraigosa is the first Mexican-American mayor in more than a century of a densely Latino territory that was once part of Mexico itself.
By some estimation, that could be termed progress, especially if you take a cosmological view of our planet, which considers the passing of millennia mere eyeblinks in universal time. But if you’re actually based on Earth itself, where centuries are arduously lengthy, explosive periods involving tectonic sociopolitical change, it is simply an eternity. But as the recent influx of Latino politicians and progressives into American governance has illustrated over the last decade alone, the wait may finally be over for La Raza.
Indeed, Villaraigosa is only one strand in the dense narrative of Latino politics, which may be enjoying its day in the sun at last, more than one-and-a-half centuries after Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and ceded not just the whole of California, Nevada and Utah but also portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona to the United States. Throw in the loss of Texas, which rebelled against Mexican rule and became an American annex in 1845, and the Gadsen Purchase, which snatched up the remnants of Arizona and New Mexico that Guadalupe Hidalgo left behind, and the final tally for Mexico was a disastrous one: Over 500,000 square miles lost (almost half its territory), and nearly 8,000 Mexicans stranded in a new country that denied them citizenship. Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, have been trying to find their place in the world ever since.
For some Americans, this history lesson is completely lost in the outcry over immigration, undocumented workers, low-wage jobs, makeshift walls and porous borders, as well as a deep-seated fear of a payback or comeback that is sure to occur. In fact, according to Republican congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the 11 million or so Mexican illegal immigrants still trying to find their place between Mexico and America are “a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation.” And while the irony of Tancredo’s statement may be lost on the sizable number of Americans who don’t know that the Republican’s Colorado was once a Mexican territory, his inflammatory terminology and possessive pronouns are going a long way to bury that history during a time when Latinos are part of the American political landscape like never before.
The list of Latino politicians making their names today is a long one. Antonio Villaraigosa is the first Mexican-American to achieve a mayoral position in Los Angeles in almost 140 years. Career politician, diplomat, ambassador and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Mexican-American, announced a run for the White House in 2008. California’s Latino politicians like Gloria Romero, Gil Cedillo, Fabian Nunez and more are making legislative strides for their constituents on both sides of the border, and others have landed elected political positions in places less heavy with Latinos like New Jersey and Illinois.
Meanwhile, their voter base has exponentially ballooned. The number of Latinos nationwide has expanded to 35.3 million and counting, overtaking African-Americans as America’s most numerous minority in the process. The number of Latino voters has doubled over the last decade, and the number of Latino politicians has grown approximately more than 30 percent in the same period.
More importantly, as Sen. Cedillo has noted in the text of his bill (SB-1) to establish an Office of Immigrant Affairs in California, “Immigrants fuel California’s economy through their labor and entrepreneurship” like never before. Far from being a scourge on the nation and economy, they are an inextricable part of its ceaselessly humming engine.
“I think there is a large misperception of their value in the economy,” Cedillo explained to me by phone in April. “But I think the business community is fully aware of it: Bank of America and Wells Fargo have issued thousands of accounts to undocumented immigrants. So I think the business community recognizes their aggregate value, even in their advertising. But as a result of the scapegoating and distortions which are propagated almost every single day on radio and TV, one would think they are a drain on the economy. And so the political myth is perpetuated.”
The myth, however, cuts both ways, according to Cedillo, who has become a controversial figure nationwide for his staid attempts since 1999 to pass bills in the California state legislature, allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. As the current U.S. attorney scandals exposes even more of the political compromises of another Latino figure, attorney general and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, it becomes clear that just because a Latino politician is in power does not mean he or she will go to bat for La Raza or the progressive policies that put them in power after decades of absence. In fact, it may be just the opposite.
“I think there is an assumption that Latino electives will be progressives,” Cedillo added, “and I don’t think that’s the case. In truth, Latinos are known to be more conservative than most progressives. Frankly, they are as poised to be Republicans as they are to be Democrats, and probably would be if Republicans didn’t hate them or promote hysteria about them.”
Speaker of California State Assembly Fabian Nunez approaches that thorny issue from a different vantage point, one that speaks of a well-honed populism. “Every issue affects Latinos in some way,” he wrote me via email on the issue, “so I have found that what helps Latinos, helps Californians and vice versa. For instance, everyone needs clean air and water, not just Latinos. The same goes for access to quality health care and educational opportunities. These are progressive ideals that will benefit Californians universally. Being progressive means helping everybody, and that’s what I try to do in the legislature every day.”
But Nunez may be missing the point, inasmuch as he conflates the needs of Latinos with those of Californians, to say nothing of Americans at large. While it is true that all of them need clean air and water and quality healthcare and education, some of them need it way more than others. Indeed, as Cedillo’s SB-1 explains, when more than one-quarter of California residents are foreign born, when most noncitizens have family members who are citizens, when 90 percent of Latinos live in households with citizens, when approximately 40 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home, and when 55 percent of California’s immigrants come from Latin America, it becomes clear that Latinos have their own issues to deal with.
What becomes clear in the smoke arising from these conflicts is the need for Latino politicians to cater to the specific needs of their ethnic constituents as well as their regional ones. And that takes not just a populist stance that plays well in the suburbs, but also a guarded progressive stance that is demanded in the cities and ghettos.
“The challenge for Latino progressives,” Cedillo explained, “is to not become intimidated by those who question their progressive background. It’s a daunting task to go from advocacy to governance. It’s a struggle to maintain progressive politics in this country; Latino electives are traditional electives. On better days, they advocate for their ethnicity, but that’s not always the case.”
Let this article serve as your litmus test for such a process. Of the five Latino electives I pursued via phone and email over the course of the month of April, only Nunez and Cedillo bothered to take the short time to talk about these controversial issues. Gloria Romero’s two directors of communications told me she was on “spring recess” (a politician’s nearly monthlong break from congressional session), with one of them letting me know for good measure that the senator didn’t have time for mainstream press, much less WireTap’s indie media. The other sent me clips from her press releases on prison sentencing, avoiding the broader issues of Latino politics and progressives altogether.
Bill Richardson at least had a good excuse: He was in North Korea trying to get Kim Jong-Il to disarm–a venture that has proven rather useless over the last decade. But if he wants to actually win the race to the White House in 2008, he’s going to have to tackle these issues soon whether he likes it or not.
And Villaraigosa? Remember his Flash animation? The first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in over a century shakes hands with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson and more iconic citizens. Despite the promises of his own press office, it seems evident that he may also too busy to talk to the students, journalists and progressives of tomorrow who helped put him into office and may help keep him there in the end.
Meanwhile, Nunez and Cedillo know which the way the wind is blowing for progressives–and the students they begin as before maturing into hardened political forces. Nunez especially has been hard at work helping them navigate the dizzying clamor for political influence.
“I see it as my mission to empower the youth of this state,” he wrote me. “Throughout my career in the legislature, I have worked to improve the lives of students at all levels. From fighting fee hikes at CSU and UC, to increasing education funding, to organizing the first-ever youth leadership summit for high school students in the district I represent, I want to hear them voice their concerns and to teach them how to get involved.” He’s even created a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Pitzer College, for the same reason.
Cedillo, as well, is equally committed to the youth of today who will make up the change agents of tomorrow. “It is a political priority to construct public policy that gives youth hope and opportunity, to engage them in civic and political life, to give them a sense that they count. They are our future, and I think it’s important to start from that premise. Everything I do is related to that investment.”
It’s an investment that has paid off well for Latinos, who barely over two centuries ago were citizens of another country entirely, with its own colonial histories and tangles. That they spent hundreds of years pushed into the dark corners of American political life–where everything from their language, culture and loyalties were incessantly questioned and mostly marginalized–is not as stunning as their sheer economic and political force this much later in the game, which is still being played from one end of the country to the other. I wouldn’t bet against them.
This article appeared in The Nation