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World Press Fits Villaraigosa Into the Big Picture

Journalists from abroad look to the rise of a Mexican immigrant's son for lessons on assimilation and diversity back home.

June 30, 2005|Jessica Garrison and Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writers

Days after Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor, Nasser Hssaini, a correspondent for the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, flew to Los Angeles from Washington seeking an interview.

"Certainly, the Arabs are watching," he said. "Here is an example of a Latino young man, who worked his way hard, and the system accepted him. America accepted him.... This is an example of a perfect integration of foreigners into the system. This is the man who could rally everybody: Jews. Muslims. Latinos."

But Hssaini went back to Washington empty-handed. On Friday, Villaraigosa will be sworn in as Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in 133 years, and he said he has received more than 1,500 interview requests. They have come, according to his office, from around the nation and from more than a dozen countries. Meanwhile, his transition team is grappling with whether they will be able to translate the festivities into multiple languages.

"There is the sense that the Latino community is gaining a power they have not had before, that's why I think there is such interest," said Carmelo Machin, a correspondent for Spain's public television.

Hoping for an interview with the mayor-elect, Machin was one of a dozen reporters who trekked to El Sereno on Wednesday to stand in the scorching sun during the groundbreaking for a new constituent services center.

It's easy to see why the foreign media might be interested in the Villaraigosa story. Los Angeles is this country's second-largest city. And here is a chance to write about how immigration is transforming it -- and by extension California and the United States. It helps that the handsome mayor-elect has a wide smile and a lusty appreciation for the charms of television cameras, which jibes with the stereotypical view of Los Angeles as the land of palm trees, cosmetic dentistry and movie stars.

But the foreign coverage of Villaraigosa, along with interviews with correspondents, also reveals much about the places the reporters come from, and the myths and viewpoints their societies have about a city that is home to so many immigrants from around the world.

"The election of Mexican American Antonio Villaraigosa ... presents an opportunity for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reconsider his racist inclination," read the lead sentence of a news story in Reforma, a large mainstream paper in Mexico City.

Schwarzenegger's suggestion that the United States' southern border should be closed (which he later amended to "secured") and citizens should be allowed to patrol the Southwest to apprehend illegal immigrants was not appreciated by many in that country.

No matter who was elected mayor of Los Angeles, it would have been news in Mexico. But the fact that it was Villaraigosa, the son of an immigrant from that country's capital, made it not just an important political story, but also, in many cases, one they could identify with, meriting not just multiple news stories but also editorials, columns and photographs.

Consider Villaraigosa's biography, which sounds like it could be been dreamed up by the writers of telenovelas, the Spanish-language soap operas so popular on both sides of the border: From the barrio of East Los Angeles, the high school dropout with the charming smile and the saintly mother pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become mayor.

"For the son of a blue-collar worker to get to the level of being mayor of one of the largest cities in Mexico is almost unbelievable," said Alex Saragoza, a UC Berkeley professor who is writing a book on the relationship between Mexican television and the Mexican state. That such a thing is possible in the United States, Saragoza added, "encourages Mexicans in Mexico to view the political process in Mexico with a greater degree of optimism that their voice counts."

Villaraigosa's rise also raises hope for improving relations between the two countries.

There is a growing perception in Mexico, said David Brooks, a U.S. correspondent for the left-leaning Mexico City daily La Jornada, that the United States is "becoming increasingly anti-immigrant." Villaraigosa's election "provokes interest because it seems to break that stereotype.... He presents the possibility of a different kind of binational dialogue."

Elsewhere in Latin America, Villaraigosa's win was felt less as a personal triumph. But it was still viewed through the lens of what it might mean for immigrants to the United States and relations between the United States and Latin America. Several analysts said that people expect Villaraigosa to continue his rise in U.S. politics, and in Latin America that sparks hopes of better relations with their powerful neighbor to the north.

"I don't know how could the mayor lobby for our legal status here, but it is always good to know he is from an immigrant family," said Tanira Lebedeff, who plans to cover the inauguration for Brazilian television.

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