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The New Political Plotline.

The Day Ravers and Immigrants Almost Danced

August 20, 2000|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is working on a book about migrant culture

TEL AVIV — We were all included at both political conventions: white, black, Asian, Latino, gay, lesbian, Protestant, Catholic, Jew and disabled paraded to the podiums in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Both gatherings were scripted as coming togethers of mythic proportions, as if America's segregation wounds had healed.

But one of the most memorable scenes during the week of the Democratic National Convention did not occur at Staples Center or on the streets where protesters and the Los Angeles Police Department played a game of cat and mouse. In marked contrast to the programmed inclusivenessinside the political hall was the unofficial, spontaneous version unfolding a couple of miles away at MacArthur Park.

There, several dozen young, white, middle-class kids, dressed in psychedelic rags, writhed to the frenzied beat of a style of music known as "electronica," spun by a deejay hovering over them on a modest stage festooned with a banner reading "Four Days of Unity." It was a surreal scene, but not so much for the '60s-style psychedelia (barkers selling Tibetan scarves, hash pipes and tie-died T-shirts) repackaged as 21st-century rave. It was more a matter of where it was happening. MacArthur Park lies at the heart of the Pico-Union district, the symbolic center of L.A.'s Central American immigrant community.

And so it was on a sweltering, smoggy afternoon that young people clamoring for one kind of revolution or another were in a neighborhood that is the product of revolution, or at least the civil wars of Central America in the 1980s. While ravers danced in a loose circle in front of the stage, Pico-Union denizens formed a concentric circle around them, curiously eyeing the new kids on the block. The visitors had begun settling in weeks ago, setting up camp at the Convergence Center, the activist clearinghouse established in a rented four-story building on the corner of 7th and Bonnie Brae, just two blocks off the park.

For a brief moment, it seemed a miracle would happen: L.A's notorious Balkanization would be broken by ravers dancing with immigrants. People were so close to actually being close. Maybe the deejay would scratch a tropical merengue number alongside the trance track, creating a third musical language to mirror the marriage of strangers taking place below him.

Yet, there developed little more than some awkward conversations between the locals and the visitors, in pidgin English and Spanish, though a few of the immigrant children broke free from their parents to prance about with the ravers. The promise turned out to be a fleeting moment of mere proximity among strangers, the kind of contact that normally passes for public life in Los Angeles. But it will be in just such settings, far from the political Muzak of conventions and the media, that a new politics and culture of inclusion will be created.

It is a curious moment in America. Despite years of rhetoric and policy-making that have set up minorities and immigrants as boogeymen--the dismantling of affirmative action, the end of bilingual education, the attempt to close the border and restrict services to the undocumented--the political and cultural mainstream now declares, ipso facto, the inclusionary society.

It is true that some things have changed, particularly in pop culture. The mainstream indulgence of the style of the immigrant Other--everything from the Buena Vista Social Club to the "primitive" designs young white kids brand their bodies with--is an essential part of America's cultural journey. But much of this "inclusion" is no more than commercial transaction; it is style.

Our public life, as a city and as a nation, can reach its greatest potential only to the extent that the new Americans among us participate in it. Some will say that is up to them: The immigrants must learn English, must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. True enough. But it is also true that we, the natives, must take stock of whether or not we are truly offering the newcomers the opportunity to do so. It is time to reexamine the policies born in the recessionary early '90s, many of which were fueled by the worst kind of political inspiration: fear. The fear of the stranger and of a faltering economy--they are connected--neither of which has completely abated, even in these boom times.

There are signs that immigrants are beginning to lose their fear. One evening during the convention, I walked through the protest pit. The last speaker had finished his remarks on stage, and the crowd was rapidly dispersing, obviously nervous that another confrontation with the police would occur. Among the few protesters left was a man who gave his name only as Francisco, a native of Veracruz, an immigrant flush with excitement after his first protest experience in his adopted country.

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