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Chicanos Hit a Nerve in Mexico

June 05, 1988|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer.

MEXICO CITY — I know people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border who look hopefully to a day when Mexican-Americans will play a greater role in formulating U.S. policy toward Mexico. They assume that Chicanos, because of their cultural affinity for Mexico, can help make the United States more sensitive to its southern neighbor.

On the other hand, some Mexicans think that a Chicano is nothing more than a gringo with a Spanish surname. This view has gained currency lately in a controversy triggered by an ordinary American political exercise that infuriated some pretty influential Mexicans, including Carlos Salinas de Gortari, presidental candidate of the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The trouble goes back to last March and the California Democratic Party's annual meeting in Palm Springs. Toward the end of the convention, the Chicano caucus offered a resolution urging the U.S. government to help promote "human rights" in Mexico by pressuring the Mexican government to ensure that the elections in July are honest. There have been serious allegations in recent years that the PRI is using electoral fraud to hold on to power in the face of growing voter disaffection caused by the country's severe economic crisis.

The resolution was approved without discussion. It also went without coverage in the English-language press. But, like so many minor things that happen in the United States and involve Mexico, the resolution did not escape the attention of Mexican journalists, who reported it in stories that made the front page of Mexico City newspapers. Now the resolution has become an issue in the presidential campaign here, with both major and minor candidates being asked to repudiate the latest case of U.S. "interventionism" against Mexico.

While traveling with the PRI presidential campaign this week, I learned just how angry the resolution made Mexican political leaders. In discussing the often rocky relationship between the United States and Mexico, several aides to Salinas cited the resolution as a classic example of American attitudes toward Mexico that "do not help make our relationship any easier," in the words of one key campaign official.

He was being diplomatic compared to the reaction of other Mexican politicians and commentators. They have blasted the resolution as "arrogant," "naive" and, especially, "interventionist." In Mexican political rhetoric, one of the most damning things a foreigner, especially an American, can be accused of is interventionism. After all, Mexico lost half its territory to the United States in 1848 in what Mexicans call the "War of North American Intervention."

That political buzz word is usually reserved for Anglos like the conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who angered Mexicans last year by chairing hearings at which Reagan Administration officials accused the Mexican government of widespread corruption. This is the first time anyone can remember interventionist being applied to Chicanos.

It had to happen eventually. For, while it may have been naive and even arrogant for some California Chicanos to think that they could tell Mexico how to run its elections, why should Mexicans expect Chicanos to be more deferential to them than other Americans are? After all, a Spanish surname, or being raised in a Mexican family, doesn't guarantee that a Chicano will understand the complexities of his ancestors' homeland any better than most other U.S. citizens do. In fact, ask a Chicano what he or she likes about Mexico, and at the top of the list will be cultural attributes like music, art, dance, literature and food. Few, if any, will say that they admire the Mexican political system. Like most Americans, they consider it undemocratic at best and corrupt and brutal at worst.

So the resolution passed by the California Democrats accurately reflects the way many Chicanos see Mexico. They feel a genuine affection for the country of their forebears and want things to improve there. But they also share with other U.S. citizens the typically American attitude that the United States has the right, even a responsibility, to change things elsewhere in the world that trouble us, be they in South Africa or south of the Rio Grande.

I'm sure that eventually there will be many more Chicanos working in the U.S. government and our private sector, handling relations with Mexico with a special sensitivity. But they will be doing it from a "gringo" perspective, because that is as much a part of them as their ethnicity, if not more. And if Mexicans expect anything else of Chicanos, then it is they--not their brothers and sisters across the border--who are being naive and arrogant.

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