A STUDENT AT Princeton University, a Mexican-American, tells me he hasn't decided whether to write his senior thesis on the Chicano novel or on Thomas Pynchon. What's missing from the Chicano novel, he says, what we really need, he says, is a "novel about a Mexican kid who grows up in the suburbs; who hangs out at the mall."
I can sympathize. For most of my life I have sought a novel that could reflect my own life. There are ethnic novels. And novels of education. There have certainly been attempts to mythologize middle-class life. I have read them all.
Only recently have I gone in search of Mexican-American lives that might inhabit an imaginary novel.
It is interesting to me. It is interesting to us.
A friend of mine tells me I should have been in town a few weeks ago--the Rufino Tamayo opening at UCLA. What a scene! Mexican-American money. The orange ladies. The black cars.
Describing herself in a crowd--picking out other Mexican-American women--Jessica Ramos tells me: "It's a curious thing to look at someone similar to yourself." Indeed.
What does it mean to be successful and Mexican-American?
I am walking with Elsa Banuelos toward her Beverly Hills office. She says some Chicanos tell her she has sold out because she is a corporate lawyer.
"I don't apologize."
She points to the Bistro Garden on the other side of Wilshire Boulevard. "We take clients there for lunch a lot." She will be sitting at a crowded table in the Bistro Garden with clients and other lawyers when someone will require a transaction with the busboy. Ice water. Bread. More coffee. "But the busboy doesn't speak English. So everyone turns to me.
"I'm tired of translating," she says.
Today's success is measured against the memory of failure. Our parents came from Mexico--poor Mexico--her land stolen, her resources siphoned, her politicians corrupt. California was once Mexico. Mexico was defeated here. Mexico withdrew. Our parents were thus newcomers to California but partisans in an old antagonism, representatives of an old defeat.
In "North from Mexico," his classic study of Mexican-Americans, Carey McWilliams wrote: "One who achieves success in the borderlands is 'Spanish,' one who doesn't is Mexican." Jessica Ramos from Santa Monica tells me her Anglo friends wonder why she doesn't just say she's Spanish. Save herself the trouble. "They seem to be more comfortable identifying me with something they understand--with Europe, I guess."
Most Mexicans have come to this country in this century. They came in the early decades--during Mexico's bloody Revolution--and they have been coming ever since. In the 1980s, Mexicans are the largest immigrant population in the United States; we are also the most notorious illegal immigrant population.
The perception of Mexicans as poor is thus constant in California because a new generation of lower-class immigrants has succeeded an earlier generation: wave after wave, year after year. The cliche never changes: We don't speak English. We drop out of high school. We live on some wrong side of town. We work as maids or as gardeners.
Henry Ramos, Jessica's brother, says he faced no discrimination growing up in Santa Monica. "What I got instead was the duty to explain: " 'Why are your people the way they are?' "
Ramos remembers problems at University High when Chicanos were bused in from across town. The principal organized a meeting, a chance for Chicanos to air their grievances to school administrators. The principal pressed Henry Ramos to join the discussion.
Henry Ramos found himself cast as a "broker between two societies that speak a different kind of language." When the Chicano students were not forthcoming, Ramos says, "I can't say that I understood their anger, but I began to speak up."
According to government statistics, a larger percentage of U.S. Latinos live below the poverty line than the national average. Again, according to government statistics, only 2% of U.S. Latinos hold postgraduate degrees. But 2% of 19 million is a lot of stories. This is by way of saying that the upper middle class remains pretty thin air for Mexicans. But there are pioneers: the first ever to be hired; the first to sit at that desk; the first ever named.
The academic most often cited regarding Mexican-American social mobility is Leo Estrada. Estrada teaches at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA. He predicts the future through demographics.
Estrada tells the story of a friend who gathered together 22 Latino Ph.D.s to look for possible similarities in their stories. Out of the 22, 21 were Protestant.
What does it mean?