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An inspiring legacy

November 03, 2005

BABY BOOMER MYTHOLOGY notwithstanding, Mexican American political activism was not born during the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. The passing of former Rep. Edward R. Roybal reminds us of the significant advances that were made by the Mexican American generation, the largely U.S.-born cohort that came of age during the Depression and World War II. Roybal embodied the best aspects of that political generation, combining a deeply felt patriotism with ethnic pride, and a belief that the struggle for equal rights went hand in hand with social integration.

In his lifetime, Roybal, who died last week at the age of 89, suffered the indignities of discrimination, but he responded to prejudice with unflappable dignity. Never a demagogue or a publicity hound, he worked quietly to create change. Nor did he succumb to the empty rhetoric of ethnic separatism that emerged in the 1960s. When he was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, Roybal was introduced as "our new Mexican councilman." Roybal was determined to set the record straight. "I'm not Mexican," he said later. "I am a Mexican American."

A veteran of World War II, Roybal was one of the many Mexican American soldiers who returned home with a greater sense of their rights as Americans. Even before many members of the succeeding Chicano generation were born, Roybal and other Mexican American politicians and activists, particularly in Texas, were forcing the desegregation of public facilities such as swimming pools and theaters.

By the end of the 1950s, Mexican American politicians and activists had succeeded in eliminating some of the more openly racist practices against them. They thus helped pave the way for a new generation that had even higher expectations.

For too long, many Chicano-generation politicos and scholars dismissed the contributions of the Mexican American generation, even labeling its members "accommodationists" because they refused to adopt the radical rhetoric of the 1960s. But at Roybal's funeral on Monday, several prominent Mexican American politicians, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, recognized the "Old Man" as a political pioneer. But the greatest compliment to Roybal and his generation is the fact that many politicians of the Chicano generation now emulate the dignity and determination that characterized Roybal himself.

Edward Roybal made history by becoming both the first Mexican American to sit on the Los Angeles City Council and the first Latino to be elected to Congress from California in the modern era. His legacy will continue to inspire generations to come.

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