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Latino Unity Fails to Live Up to Hype

October 05, 2003|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He's writing a book on how Mexican immigration will change America's view of race.

It may not have been the act that sealed his fate, but there is little doubt that Gov. Gray Davis' signing of a bill that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses didn't do much to save his political skin. He must have known that his signature on legislation that he had twice vetoed would incur the wrath of many Anglo, black and Asian voters. But the governor evidently calculated that a windfall of Latino support would offset his Anglo losses. He was wrong.

According to the most recent Times poll, Latinos are much more likely to support the new driver's license law than are their non-Latino counterparts. But when asked if they would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the legislation, the results were pretty much a wash. Though 32% of likely Latino voters said they would be more likely, 27% said they'd be less likely and 37% said it made no difference. I'm sure that is not what Davis had expected: alienating large numbers of white, black and Asian voters just to split the Latino vote.

Davis repeated a mistake many analysts have made during the recall campaign: He distilled the burgeoning and diversifying Latino electorate of 2.3 million into a lump of uniformity.

It's not that the idea of providing licenses to undocumented immigrants is inherently bad. A few more security provisions to protect against fraud would have strengthened the legislation. In fact, the two previous bills contained these protections, and Davis vetoed both. The one he signed had fewer of them. So Davis' about-face had nothing to do with policy. It was pure ethnic politics.

The bill's backers initially tried to de-ethnicize the issue. They spoke of highway safety, greater numbers of insured drivers and the harm to society that comes from having millions of people living without rights and under the radar. But they tipped their hands when two of the bill's supporters in Sacramento insisted on debating the issue in Spanish on the Assembly floor, presumably for the benefit of their colleagues in the Legislature with limited English- language skills.

For a generation now, Mexican American activists have been trying to portray the Latino population as a well-oiled political fighting machine. They've warned Anglo political bosses that if they do this, Latinos will be angry, or if they do that, Latinos will love them. A naive media accustomed to speaking in ethnic and racial shorthand followed along. When Davis signed the driver's license bill last month, the San Diego Union Tribune claimed simply that "Latinos across the state celebrated."

But for just as long as activists have been feigning unity, there have been writers warning Latinos against passing themselves off as what they are not. In their pioneering 1966 essay on Mexican Americans in the Southwest, Ernesto Galarza, Herman Gallegos and Julian Samora concluded that the "historical conditions for solidarity do not exist" for this ethnic group. A few years later, Galarza cautioned against the political culture that stressed unity and protest. "[An ethnic group] is unified mainly from without," he wrote. "Its strategies must depend on alien decisions; it is constantly forced to be where the reaction and not the action is."

Throughout the recall campaign, activists warned -- and some commentators echoed -- that Latinos would react in angry unison against this or that campaign tactic. They said a candidate's support for Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal-immigrant initiative, would unleash a wave of Latino indignation. But a Times poll in August revealed that Latino public opinion was much more nuanced than that. When asked whether a candidate's support of Proposition 187 made them more or less likely to vote for that nominee, a hefty 42% of likely Latino voters said they'd be less likely. On the other hand, 9% said they would be more likely and fully 45% said it made no difference.

Though no ethnic experience is monolithic, Mexican Americans, who make up 77% of California Latinos, are even more wildly heterogeneous than most. African American history and identity were forged by a singular, collectively shared experience of forced migration and white oppression. American Jewish identity has been shaped by a tradition, thousands of years old, stressing continuity and cohesion. Other American immigrant waves have had a beginning, middle and end in which group self-definition gradually shifted from an immigrant identity to an ethnic American one. For many European immigrant groups, scholars can point to the year when the children of immigrants eclipsed their foreign-born parents both in numbers and cultural influence.

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