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Chicano History With a Sharp Left Turn : ANYTHING BUT MEXICAN Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles by Rudolfo F. Acun~a Verso $19.95, paperback; 328 pages


This is an important and useful book, although its intellectual framework and the angry tone of some of its parts may put off some people who would gain insight into California's huge and growing Latino population by reading it.

Rudolfo Acun~a, who has frequently written for The Times, tends to stir up controversy with his frequently confrontational posture. He is professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. An earlier book, "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos" is the bible of the militant Chicano movement.

This new book is thorough and for the most part fair in its accounts of Chicanos in politics, Chicanos in the labor movement, the role of Chicanas, Chicanos and the police forces. (Like the good militant that he is, Acun~a uses Chicano to mean people of Mexican ancestry living in Southern California.)

But when Acun~a generalizes, his rhetoric is hotter than when he is telling a story. He is proudly leftist--the book comes out under the publisher's Haymarket Series of "books of interest to socialists"--and it is awash with the Marxist cliches of race, class, sex and gender that currently slosh around in too much American academic discourse.

For instance, Acun~a approvingly quotes another professor as saying that machismo is not "some weird Mexican phenomenon" but a "form of male supremacist ideology serving capital accumulation."

Remarks like this mar but do not spoil his careful accounting of recent Chicano history. His story of Chicanos in politics, from Eddie Roybal through the rise of Gloria Molina to Los Angeles County Supervisor, does not spare Chicano factionalism and the development of Chicano power brokers and political machines.

Acun~a can be funny. Contrasting Molina's willingness to rock the boat with Councilman Richard Alatorre's practice of "the old machine politics of log-rolling," Acun~a says that "Alatorre's style seemed increasingly out of step; like smoking, it had become gauche during the 1980s."

Acun~a can be tough. "Elected Latino officials created a moral crisis by remaining largely silent about the [Rodney] King incident," he writes. "Their timidity emboldened some Latino leaders to support [Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl] Gates, perhaps hoping for a political payoff by doing so.

"In refusing to judge when judgment was clearly required, these leaders undercut their own civil rights tradition."

Acun~a pays close attention to the relations between the various groups in Los Angeles.

"Both Chicano and black power brokers derive their strength from playing the race card." he writes. "In this sense Chicanos/Latinos and blacks are competitors for services, living space and access to government and even the drug trade turf."

"Neither Chicano nor black leaders, or, for that matter, whites and Asians, designed goals and programs that took the needs of a multiracial city into account."

I agree with him that the current wave of immigrants is on the whole good for the country, the state and the city and that we need not fear but should welcome the influx of Mexicans and other Latinos. Hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric is especially inappropriate in an economy that rests on the labor of immigrants, legal and illegal.

And the history of anti-Mexican sentiment in California is very old and very ugly.

But Acun~a labels all those who question immigration "racists" and all opposition "hysteria."

For him it is but a short step from this position to say of the current campaign against affirmative action that "to many, the sharp lurch to the right on the American political scene represents an embryonic stage of neo-facism." Even for a staunch lefty like Acun~a, that's a bit much.

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