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At the Birth of a New--and Younger--Latino Activism

November 13, 1994|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam) and co-host of "Twenty-something Talk" on KMPC

On Election Day, a friend of mine, a Mexican American school administrator, called me. Earlier that day, one of his students, a 12-year-old girl, had approached him before class and cautiously asked him if she was still allowed to come to school the next day. As an educator, my friend has seen drug abuse, child abuse and classroom neglect. Still, he told me, in a voice choked with emotion, this was his most painful experience yet.

Is this the intention of Proposition 187, which would, among other things, deny a public education to illegal immigrants? Is this the message that Gov. Pete Wilson, and all who voted for the initiative, wanted to send to Washington concerning the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group? Was it, "stop growing?"

I was not really surprised that some Latinos--presumably, some of my fellow Mexican Americans--would vote for such a spiteful initiative. Indeed, a Los Angeles Times exit poll found that 22% of them voted to "save our state." But from whom? From those who share our surnames, skin color and Catholic saints?

For months, Mexican Americans op- posed to 187 had been confessing their anger and frustration that some of our gente would tacitly support it. The diagnosis was amnesia. It was said that, in our eagerness to be accepted by the white mainstream, we had forgotten where we come from and the significance of those old black-and-white photographs in Grandmother's dresser drawer.

But on Election Day, we did not forget where we come from; more times than not, we remembered. Just a few weeks earlier, a Times poll had revealed that up to 52% of surveyed Latinos favored Proposition 187, a figure that was cut in half when the generic "illegal alien" assumed a brown face and, thanks to Gov. Wilson, a name, "Pedro."

That is only part of the silver lining to this black cloud. Finally, scores of angry Mexican Americans are realizing that, in times of crisis, the sidelines are an irresponsible place to stand. My phone rings endlessly with people asking, "What should we do now?" The school administrator assures that even if 187 is upheld in the courts, he will not enforce it. "They can fire me. They can arrest me. But I won't do it!"

A young Mexican-American surgeon tells me the same thing. "I hope the jail cells are big enough for me to operate in . . . because that's where they'll have to put me." The Mexican-American Christian youth minister is rambling on about some higher law, and preparing meetings of young people to invent creative ways to "circumvent" what he considers an immoral man-made law. The signs are everywhere. La resistance is forming.

Look beyond the Mexican flags in the newspaper photographs. There! That young girl, barely 15, speaking with such passion about an issue that hit close to home. Disproving the myth that Generation X lacks a political soul, she is the answer to the dreams of scores of Latino grandmothers. She is also the nightmare of old guard Mexican American leadership, teetering on irrelevancy at the brink of a new century. She is our 21st Century mayor, our governor. All this has been her political baptism--her Chicago Democratic convention, her Kent State. If she becomes naturalized, if she registers, if she votes, the fire in her belly will warm us all.

Of course, the road to political empowerment is a bumpy one. Without much of a blueprint to follow, such youngsters are sure to make mistakes. They may revert to the familiar apathy--Latin American fatalism--that paralyzed those who came before them. They may assume, wrongly, that there are no allies to be found among non-Latinos. They may follow their elders down the narrow path of devotion to only one political party, cutting off important avenues of communication and cooperation. They may even cannibalize themselves, turning on one another instead of working together toward common ends.

In short, these political novices will stumble along in much the same way older politicos did years ago. Inevitably, along the way, the paths of the old and the young will meet. Expect hotly contested political races--Latino vs. Latino. Expect a shifting of power away from Gloria Molina and Mike Hernandez and Richard Allatorre and toward a new crop of charismatic immigrant leaders with youth and energy.

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