SAN FRANCISCO — A friend of mine, an African American fireman in San Francisco, thinks that Mexican Americans are smart because most of us don't bother to vote. On the other hand, my Mexican mother frets.
Unlike Texas or New Mexico, which have older, more politically active Latino populations, California has only lately begun to see Latinos running for school boards or city halls. California has yet to see one of its own Mexican American politicians assume statewide or national stature. And, even this year, when so much of the political debate concerns Mexico and Mexicans, most of us will not vote.
My mother thinks that Mexican Americans have made themselves easy prey for ambitious politicians. My friend, the black fireman, by contrast, thinks the biggest mistake black Americans have made is believing in politics and politicians. "We have black mayors, black congressmen--there are blacks everywhere among the political elites--but what has our belief in politics gotten us, except for the assumption that the government would somehow solve our problems?"
Two weeks ago, in one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in Los Angeles, an estimated 70,000 people marched against Proposition 187--the measure that would deny government assistance, including medical and educational, to illegal immigrants and their children. Organizers of the demonstration were ecstatic at the size of the crowd. Here, surely, was the galvanic moment of Mexican American political consciousness in California!
Other Californians were not so sure. They wondered why so many of the demonstrators were carrying Mexican flags.
Mexican Americans are notorious in the United States for not cutting their apron strings to Mexico. They violate the American habit of amnesia. We remain mama's boys, attached to memory, unwilling to abandon our hyphen.
On the other hand, Mexican Americans are quick to take offense. Since when does affection for Mexico mean one cannot be a loyal American? Mexican Americans proudly name their fathers and grandfathers who have fought in U.S. wars. Mexican Americans won more Purple Hearts in the Second World War than any other ethnic group. The fact remains: Because of proximity to memory, because of the 19th-Century rivalry between the two countries, Mexican Americans have had a complicated relationship to Mexico and to America. If today, U.S. politicians assume that Mexican Americans are not a threat on Election Day, our Mexican grandmothers never let us forget that we speak bad Spanish, they scold us for our gringo ways, for not being Mexican enough.
Though Latinos constitute nearly 30% of California's population, we number fewer than 10% of the state's eligible voters. Many within that 10% will not bother to vote. The politicians are counting on it.
The irony is that, this summer, after decades of political indifference, Mexicans in huge numbers lined up to vote in their nation's presidential election. Eighty percent of Mexico's eligible voters stood for hours, many under the unblinking sun, to vote.
In California, proponents of Proposition 187 have framed their argument in terms of welfare dollars. But for many Latinos, the issue of immigration is all about jobs. Surely, the most interesting pre-election polls indicate that large numbers, perhaps even the majority, of Latinos will vote in favor of Proposition 187.
Should that be so very surprising? For decades in California, there has been a competition for jobs between native-born Latinos and newly arrived immigrants. The newcomer was willing to work for the lowest wage, the newcomer was always trying to find room in the overcrowded barrio, the newcomer posed the greatest threat to Latinos only one rung up the ladder.
I know a Mexican American who works as a border patrolman along the San Ysidro corridor. He loathes Mexico. His father fled the corruption of Mexico, its politics and its cynicism. Now, the border patrolman is horrified to see Mexico approaching, every night approaching, on his green radar screen.
On the other side of line, what Mexican kids will tell you is that there are two Californias. As workers and consumers, these kids will be welcomed and used in Los Angeles. But as outlaws ("illegals"), they will be methodically hunted.
Mexicans are accustomed to the double standard. For decades, there have been two ways in Mexico. There has been the realm of the public, the official--the listed price or written law. In fact, however, official means negotiable, capable of being subverted by private transaction, bartering in the marketplace, a bribe in jail.
In the United States, Mexicans have come to regard official prohibitions as just that: official--an inconvenience to their lives in private America. Mexicans thus see right through America's hypocrisy.
On the 11 o'clock news, the politician complains about illegal immigrants; in his private life, the politician employs an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Mexicans are not surprised.