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Is Mexican Immigration Different? : MEXAMERICA Two Countries, One Future by Lester D. Langley (Crown Publishers: $19.95; 320 pp.)

March 20, 1988|Julian Nava | Nava, after 12 years as elected member of the Los Angeles School Board, served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Jimmy Carter and continues to teach history at Cal State Northridge. and

Deep in the heartland of the United States, Mexicans are changing American life irreversibly. This book gives us one man's highly personalized impressions of the change. The author speaks from the background of a career in college teaching and some time spent in Mexico and Costa Rica, which has led him to write several books on Latin America. To a considerable extent, however, his book is autobiographical; for as he put it to a Mexican bartender he interviewed, he is still seeking the soul of a Mexican kid who questioned him years ago in a Texas cotton field when he was just a poor farm boy himself. The boy's questions about Mexican-Americans confounded him back then and serve as the inspiration for his adult investigations today. His book offers some provocative insight, some confusion and in the end, considerable apprehension about the future of an America under ever-increasing Mexican influence.

The book is timely. Daily we read both about the steady number of undocumented workers coming from Mexico and about the harassment of Latinos by law enforcement agencies and the INS. Of course, Mexican men and women keep coming to work because they know that otherwise law-abiding American citizens will employ them for lower wages than Americans would accept. Hence the dilemma that Lester D. Langley has to cope with.

He is not alone in wondering what might become of the America he knew as a child. Langley cites Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado as stating that the United States will surely bear a great long-term social cost because of the influx of Mexican labor. He also cites Sen. Alan Simpson, saying of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act that "It's a monstrous S.O.B. . . ." but insisting that the new law is better than anything we had before. Most of the American comments Langley cites on the issue are alarmist if not racist. A fair characterization of his final view on Latinos is revealed in the remark that "They will accomplish what black power was never able to do: change the character of American politics and culture. Hispanics want the hispanization of America."

Frankly, I do not believe that Langley has proven this assertion, nor do the sources he cites lend weight to such an ominous charge. Authorities in the field will take issue with his conclusions if only because his sources are secondhand, rather than the product of his own research. The numerous individuals he interviewed in Chicago, San Antonio, Denver, East Los Angeles and in Juarez and other Mexican cities were helpful but hardly adequate as a basis for his generalizations. And yet, even if his scholarship is uneven, the matters he deals with command attention.

At several points, I decided to stop reading Langley's book in indignation at his curious propensity for vulgar language--invariably attributed to Latinos--and his prurient and inappropriate attention to the lower extreme of Mexican life. Thus Langley spends far more time than is relevant describing whorehouses in Juarez that cater to gringo males who pay to watch obscene acts and otherwise behave as they could not back home. He observes that one of the outcomes of border maquiladoras (plants in Mexico assembling components for U.S. factories at lower labor costs) has been to move Mexican girls out of bordellos into assembly plants. In Juarez today, he states, there are only 200 registered prostitutes whereas 20 years before there were 7,000. One wonders what has happened to the frustrated American clients. But clearly there are more significant aspects of this new program for shared production to talk about than its impact on prostitution.

Alongside such lapses, fortunately, readers will find occasional insights that reveal Langley's intelligence and his earnest desire to discuss an important subject with all seriousness. While Midwestern Latinos try to be 110% American, he reports, much like the White American Southerner, they still cling to la cultura latina . They enjoy Mexican food and music and like to speak Spanish now and then, while feeling "American plus" at the same time. Langley says that "these seemingly contradictory worlds pose less a dilemma for them than for their mainstream American observers who persist in believing that the middle class constitutes a culture." Yes, Latino culture is very old, rich and varied, filling a void Latinos sense in America. But other American ethnic groups share this feeling, in my view; hence the fascination for culturally exotic food, dress and music of all kinds.

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