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A Day of Mourning : Mexican Americans Speak of Colosio's Assassination With Emotion and Disbelief

March 25, 1994|DIANNE KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton was speaking on the big-screen TV about the horror of political assassinations, about how sorry he was, about the solid relationship between Mexico and the United States that would not change.

His words, translated by a newscaster into Spanish, were filtering down to the diners at Diana's Mexican Restaurant on a gloomy Thursday afternoon in Huntington Park. This was politics, protocol, part of the controlled ritual of international affairs.

To many of Southern California's Mexican immigrants, however, the meaning of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio's assassination Wednesday was found someplace else, a place often hard to reach with words.

At Diana's, at the Mexican Consulate where the flags were flying at half-staff, in countless homes, talk mixed with emotion and disbelief. It seemed that a terrible threshold had been crossed, and danger and disillusion lurked on the other side.

"About politics I don't know a lot," said roofer Jose Bernal, 26, a native of Aguascalientes in central Mexico. His eyes rose toward the TV that hung above the upholstered plastic booths in Diana's front room.

"But this hurts me, right here," he said, placing his hand quietly to his chest and then wiping away tears. His 3-year-old daughter, seated behind a mound of French fries, stared at her father, incomprehension in her eyes.

"I'm always going to remember this," Bernal went on. "He was going to be president of Mexico! If this can happen to him, what is going to happen to Mexico in the future? Look at Chiapas, what happened there. What's happening to Mexico? I'm afraid things are just going to get worse."

Indeed, the talk at Diana's, a popular gathering place for many in the Los Angeles Mexican American community, was of Mexico's cycle of misfortune that started with the armed rebellion in southern Chiapas state on New Year's Day. That was the last time that talk of back home seemed to consume people here.

Then there was the kidnaping earlier this month of Alfredo Harp Helu, chairman of Mexico's largest financial group. He still has not been released. Now Colosio, the candidate of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who was virtually assured of becoming the next president, had been fatally shot in the head.

Suddenly, it seemed as if modern Mexico has become mired in a deadly fable the likes of which Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez might write.

"It's like revolution, Pancho Villa, all over again," said Mexico City-born Elsa Rodriguez, the manager of this relaxed restaurant with the giant swordfish over the bar and the huge oil painting of Diana, the owner's daughter, surveying the scene.

"Since the first of January, Mexico changed. After (Wednesday), it is going to change again."

Said Estela Davila, from northern Mexico's Chihuahua state, "We all think the same things. We thought that nothing like this could ever happen in Mexico. We are not used to these violent acts in Mexico."

In fact, Mexico's past is threaded with violence, but Mexicans point to their history with great pride. There was a nobility to, say, the Mexican revolutionaries of 1910, glorious warriors who never hesitated to use bloodshed toward an end.

But after decades of political stability, the assassination of Colosio seemed the start of a slide into U.S.-style political violence, a savage and unpredictable animal that might never again be caged. Never did the popular Mexican saying, "Poor Mexico--so far from God and so close to the United States" seem more apt.

"It's terrible over there," said Alfred Almada, a retail manager whose relatives hail from Guadalajara and Michoacan. "The government is real corrupt. It's dangerous. I won't go there anymore. It's scary."

Among the more detached observers at Diana's were those who feared reactions such as Almada's. Such thinking would be bad for Mexico, they said, and bad for the United States.

"From an economic point of view, I feel bad," said Huntington Park City Councilman Raul Perez. "It could cause problems to Mexico. I think there is going to be a witch hunt (for scapegoats)."

But Jessica Maes, adviser to the Huntington Park Chamber of Commerce, said she was surprised at all the news coverage that Colosio's death has drawn.

"This guy was very popular," she said of Colosio. "He appealed to the low-income people. That's why everybody is taking it so bad. I've seen people crying here, they've taken it so personally. They had something to believe in. A lot of people did react more than I thought. He appealed to the little people."

Not everybody, however, was shaken by Colosio's death. Several said, in essence, that he had it coming. They saw him as just another cog in a political system that is essentially corrupt.

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