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Villaraigosa Aims to Make Most of 'Latino Mayor' Role

The L.A. chief executive has a cameo on George Lopez's situation comedy even as he seeks to avoid being typecast as a minority politician.

October 12, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seemed famous enough for comedian George Lopez to have some fun with him. The mayor had been on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazines, on "The Today Show," and countless times in local, national, and international media outlets.

So writers at the ABC sitcom "The George Lopez Show" scripted the comedian imitating Villaraigosa. Then they wondered: How about getting the mayor himself on the show?

The result, which culminates in Villaraigosa's brief appearance in the episode that airs tonight on KABC-TV Channel 7, marks another moment in which Villaraigosa has had to define where his mayoralty and his ethnicity meet, and on whose terms.

As much as Villaraigosa has cast himself as the city's camera-ready multiethnic uniter, he has found it impossible -- and politically inexpedient -- to shed his Latino identity.

In many ways, the title of "first Latino mayor" of modern Los Angeles that trailed Villaraigosa after his win has given him enormous political benefits. He won meetings with top Democrats during two visits to Washington, and is widely considered a bright star of the Democratic Party. Time listed him among "The 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America."

But the small details and unscripted asides that surrounded his campaign and have seeped into his administration show the subtle ways in which Villaraigosa chooses to mediate his ethnic identity.

Mayoral news conferences now are entirely bilingual, and frequently the Spanish-language press leads the questioning. The mayor repeats his points in both languages. Villaraigosa still makes quips about his own halting Spanish, a symptom of the mostly English upbringing he shares with countless bicultural Latinos in Southern California.

Every so often, his office's statements refer to his historic win. A Sept. 30 statement expressing admiration for Constance Baker Motley, the first African American female federal judge, who died Sept. 28, starts: "As the first Latino Mayor of Los Angeles in over 130 years ... "

When a Villaraigosa event calls for food -- from his private inner-circle party on election night to a brunch at the Getty House on Sunday -- the cuisine is fusion, from local favorite Cha Cha Cha.

Then there was the tequila at the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project dinner.

In July, Villaraigosa received an almost ecstatic welcome, complete with fireworks and sound effects, at the annual gala for the voters' rights group in Commerce.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the nonpartisan group, interrupted Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's introduction to announce that years ago he and Villaraigosa had made a deal: If Villaraigosa ever won the mayor's office, the two would have a shot of tequila together.

A tequila shot had been placed at every table setting in the Commerce Casino's upstairs ballroom. But before the guests and Latino elected officials who were present toasted in unison, Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, had everyone acknowledge the casino's mostly Latino staff, who went about the ballroom immersed in the work of delivering dinner plates.

Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros has been there before. In 1981 he rode a multiethnic coalition similar to Villaraigosa's to become the first Latino mayor of a U.S. big city. He got the magazine covers, was courted by national political leaders, and used his hype to draw business and tourism to his city.

"I had invitations to do 'Saturday Night Live.' I actually had a perfume named after me," Cisneros said in an interview this week.

Even after serving four terms in San Antonio, Cisneros said, he was still viewed as "the Latino mayor."

The title served a purpose, he said: "You build up political capital in order to make hard decisions that will require you to spend some of that capital. That's the fine art of creating a kind of a bandwagon effect.

"Is there a downside to this? Yes there is," Cisneros added. "And that is: If the capacity to govern doesn't keep pace, that's a tremendous burden and responsibility."

Villaraigosa appears to be striving to transcend the label that stuck to Cisneros. So far, he has shown up at cultural events for Japanese, Koreans, Armenians, African Americans, Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Croatians, Pakistanis, Ecuadoreans and Argentines, among others.

"At whatever level he feels that [Latino] pride, he can't be overt about it," said Oscar Garza, editor of Tu Ciudad, a Latino-oriented, upscale L.A. magazine. "He celebrates it through others. He celebrates it through the community,"

Ethnic pride, Garza added, "is there; sometimes it's an undercurrent and other times it's a little more on the surface. It's almost like a reclaiming of the city in some way. It is what it is."

Lopez has had fun at Villaraigosa's expense before. To mark the start of Hispanic Heritage Month on Sept. 16, Villaraigosa presented special awards to Lopez and Guadalupe Rivera Marin, daughter of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

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