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Latinos Must Stand Up to Their Own Bigotry

May 16, 2000|AGUSTIN GURZA

He was murdered three years ago this month. Chased by a mob across a busy boulevard. Head bashed in by a baseball bat. Left for dead at 24 in the parking lot of an anonymous strip mall.

"What did I do?" the panicked victim was heard shouting as he ran for his life.

What did he do? He made the mistake of being black in the wrong barrio.

His name was Virgil Henry III. He lived in Van Nuys and was headed to visit his parents in Hawaiian Gardens when he stepped unwittingly off a bus into a maelstrom on Carson Boulevard.

He tripped trying to flee, and was set upon by at least 10 attackers, men and women, adults and teenagers. Except for one detail, they could have been perpetrators in an old-fashioned lynching.

But this wasn't Alabama of the Old South. It's contemporary Southern California. And the members of the mob were not whites. They were Latinos.

All but one--the bat-wielding killer--got away. Just one more thing about this case that smacks of Southern justice.

The murder of Virgil Henry did not make the papers at the time. Not one word about a killing that should have jarred our collective conscience. I first read about it in colleague Peter Y. Hong's story last week about a series of hate-motivated attacks that plagued Hawaiian Gardens in the mid-'90s.

Black teenagers were roughed up walking home from school in the small, low-income city on the Orange County border between Long Beach and Cypress. Several homes of African American families were firebombed. Black residents were frequently threatened in public with the usual epithet and a warning: "Get out of our neighborhood."

Though things have quieted down, law enforcement statistics show that the trouble was the worst hate spree in Los Angeles County--more than three dozen incidents, including two other murders. Yet we've heard more about the murder of the black man dragged behind a truck in Texas and the killing of a gay man tied to a fence in Wyoming.

To borrow a line from Bob Dole: Where is the outrage in Southern California?

I suspect we put a comforting distance between ourselves and local hate crimes because we have deserving culprits to blame. Street gangs, not white supremacists, are responsible for most of the violent hate attacks in Los Angeles County. And the greatest number of perpetrators belong to Latino gangs, as was the case in Hawaiian Gardens, according to a study by a University of Hawaii professor.

So the evil is them, not us. We're the law-abiding majority. We can't be held responsible for what these little monsters do to each other.

Think again. Those gang members are not aliens. They are our children. The hate they spew on our streets was learned at home. We may not have taught them to kill, but we showed them how to hate by example.

Latinos must face up to the harsh truth we have been keeping as our dirty family secret. As a group, we are deeply, virulently racist. Even as we ask white society to treat us as equals, we look down on other ethnic groups around us. We even treat our own children differently, depending on whether they turn out gueritos or prietitos--fair-skinned like the Spaniards or with dark complexions like the Indians.

We ask others to respect our individuality as Mexicans or Cubans or Nicaraguans, but then we lump all Asians together as chinitos, little Chinese people. We also commonly refer to African Americans as negritos, or little black folk, regardless of their actual stature.

Some of us defend the diminutive by claiming it's affectionate. I contend its belittling, akin to Southerners calling black men "boys." The real proof of our affection for blacks comes when our children want to date or--por Dios!--marry one of them. I've known Mexican parents willing to disinherit their sons and daughters over interracial relationships.

Don't take my word for it. Go see the new movie "Luminarias" to get a taste of the religious and ethnic biases so pervasive among L.A.'s Latinos, including the educated and well-to-do.

Everybody's a target in this story of four Latina professionals looking for love. Jews. Koreans. White men. Homosexuals. Even Mexican immigrants, referred to pejoratively as "wetbacks."

It's painful to look in that mirror. I wondered why screenwriter Evelina Fernandez, born and raised in East L.A., didn't do more to confront the ugly side of her characters.

"I wanted to portray a reality, and the reality is we don't confront each other about it either," she told me at a recent reception at Martinez Books in Santa Ana. "We let it go; we let it happen."

As the emerging majority, it's time Latinos stood up to their own bigotry. Before it's too late.


Agustin Gurza's column appears Tuesday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or

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