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CURRENT INTEREST : Mexican-Americans: Minority or Mainstream?

October 31, 1993|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | Patrick J. McDonnell is a Times reporter who has written about Latino issues. He is currently assigned to the Mexico City bureau

At the core of Peter Skerry's detailed study is an incendiary hypothesis: Self-promoting Mexican-American "leaders," attuned to the discordant rhythms of "strident minority politics" now embedded in the U.S. system, are directing Mexican-Americans down a treacherous path of identification as an oppressed minority more akin to African-Americans than other immigrant groups. Such an approach, the author warns, impedes people of Mexican ancestry from attaining the degree of political assimilation achieved by European-American ethnic populations.

This idea is certainly controversial, destined to be simultaneously skewered and acclaimed. Some will be inclined to dismiss the author's conclusions as the neoliberal take of a white affirmative-action-basher based deep inside the Beltway, far from the barrios of the Southwest.

"Mexican Americans are being seduced by the new American political system into adopting the not entirely appropriate, divisive and counterproductive stance of a racial minority group," Skerry argues. Thus the subtitle's "ambivalent minority," poised between self-identification as an ethnic group and as a minority. Ambivalence is evident in other ways as well: Proud of their Mexican heritage, they are often unable to speak Spanish--and are frequently unfamiliar with the ways of the vast numbers of new immigrants who have reshaped the Mexican-American identity in the past decade. Significantly, Skerry stresses the heterogenous nature of a population that, while often mistakenly viewed by outsiders as a monolithic bloc, includes both fifth-generation U.S. residents and new arrivals.

Despite Skerry's provocative stance, critics would be ill-advised to ignore his research. For Skerry, a Washington-based UCLA political scientist, has cast a discerning and critical eye on contemporary Mexican-American political reality. One hopes the work will serve to inspire alternate analyses in a field in need of scholarship from all perspectives. Putting aside for the moment Skerry's disturbing central analysis, his book still constitutes a significant documentary addition to the growing body of research about the political aspirations of Mexican-Americans.

Such study is much needed at a time when the fast-growing group (and all Latinos) are an ever-more significant segment of the U.S. body politic, especially in California. The author's extensive examinations of the greatly varying Mexican-American realities in San Antonio and Los Angeles--the two cities where he focuses his research--are pointed, whatever one makes of his conclusions. The contrasts between the clubby, ward-style maneuverings of San Antonio and the more distant, media-oriented and more ideological politics of Los Angeles are most enlightening.

Skerry provides an astute examination of the internecine battles for power in Latino East Los Angeles, where a massive influx of (mostly non-voting) new immigrants has greatly altered the political equation. Considerable space is dedicated to dissecting a befuddling dilemma: Why is it that Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, while economically better-off than Latinos in San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas, have achieved less political influence than their counterparts in the Lone Star State? In his response, Skerry stresses Southern California's vast new immigrant population, mostly alienated from the political process, along with the region's inherent hostility to the ethnic-based, patronage-driven politics common in Texas.

But the center of Skerry's argument is more complex--and contentious. The crucial distinction cited between ethnic and minority politics is often a difficult one to grasp. Rejecting "racial claimant politics," the author clearly favors traditional routes toward political empowerment followed by earlier immigrant groups, including his own Irish-Catholic ancestors. (Even though the Southwest was once part of Mexico, Mexican-Americans are mostly of immigrant stock, though often tracing their U.S. origins back several generations.)

While not disputing that Mexican-Americans have been sometimes relegated to "virtual caste status" and otherwise subject to humiliating bias and discrimination, Skerry argues that identification as a racially oppressed minority is inappropriate, and harmful, for this population. The potential benefits to be gained through the "affirmative action ethos" now found in U.S. politics, press and foundations, Skerry argues, do not offset what he considers the downside: an isolating and divisive entitlement identification that thwarts political progress and assimiliation.

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