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Immigrants foreign by birth, American by ritual

January 20, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

I went on a secret mission last week. Undercover and unannounced, I arrived at the little Art Deco cube that is Maywood City Hall.

Supposedly I had stepped deep into the heart of "alien" America. This is the city, after all, which in 2006 declared itself a "sanctuary" where undocumented immigrants need not fear arrest.

Last month, the leader of the sanctuary movement emerged victorious in a City Council recall election. On YouTube, I watched Felipe Aguirre celebrate his victory, addressing his followers with full-throated, populist bluster in Spanish.

I was expecting to see more Spanish-language fireworks at a City Hall that's seen its share of scandal in recent years.

But when I sat in the back row at the meeting of the Maywood City Council, I saw a ceremony that began with a sacred oath -- in English. "I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands . . . "

Aguirre, a Chicago native raised in Mexico City, is a burly guy with a thick mustache, and he's one of those rare people who speak English and Spanish with equal fluency. From the council dais, I watched him join in as loud as anyone, with his hand over his heart: " . . . one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

On this day of rituals, as we watch our new president take the oath of office, your humble columnist would like to take a moment to celebrate the many civic ceremonies and practices that unite us as a republic: from the pithy eloquence of the Pledge of Allegiance to the prosaic instructions of Robert's Rules of Order.

Maywood is an overwhelmingly Latino town tucked between the industrial neighborhoods of southeastern Los Angeles County.

Spanish is the dominant language of the streets, but allegiance to the rituals of the American republic remains alive and well -- even though a lot of people who've read this column in the first weeks of its existence seem to think the two can't coexist.

"The Latino people in this country are so aggressive, I see their true intent as revolutionists," reads one of the many angry e-mails to fill my inbox since I started writing a column in which I often quote people who speak Spanish. "The outright force of the Spanish language on an English-speaking culture, without apology, is a clear statement of revolution."

Well, no, sir, I'd have to disagree.

There's ample evidence to suggest that, in the collision of the foreign heritages of Southern California's many immigrants and the U.S. political institutions of their adopted country, it's the institutions that almost always win out.

I offer as Exhibit A the life of Gustavo Villa, 53, a truck driver, native of Guadalajara and one-time Maywood insurrectionist who came to the United States as a college-educated adult.

I met Villa a decade ago, when he helped lead a revolt against a local utility, the Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 2. Upset by high water bills and poor treatment from utility officials, Villa and his mostly Spanish-speaking neighbors plotted the takeover of the company.

The neighbors founded a community association and gave it a Spanish name: el Grupo Pro-Mejoras de Maywood, or the Maywood Pro-Improvement Group. They were determined to get back at the water official who had told Villa: "First go learn English and then come back and talk with me."

In 2007, the revolution was complete. After several years on the water company's board, Villa quit his truck-driving job and became general manager.

"I've matured a lot," he now tells me in Spanish. He's spent a decade teaching himself the mechanics of U.S. government and its environmental laws. He's taken college courses in water management, and these days sounds something like a water professor.

"The federal government passed something called the Clean Water Act in 1972," he says as he gives me a tour of the water company's refurbished facilities. "That law touches on almost everything we do."

The only destructive thing about Villa's leadership as Maywood water czar is that he's torn up the ground to replace ancient pipes and water meters. He presides over company board meetings in English. "Even though I have a thick accent, I do it to show respect for this great nation," he said.

Still, Villa isn't entirely happy with what's going on in Maywood these days. Like a lot of people, he thinks the city government is a mess. He's tangled with Aguirre over a host of issues, including the appointment last year of a police chief with a criminal history.

Even before Villa publicly criticized Aguirre, he was getting threats from Aguirre's supporters. "They told me, 'If you get in our way, we're going to screw you. . . . We'll bring people to the water company to harass you.' "

At last week's City Council meeting, I got a small taste of the "poison" rhetoric that taints Maywood's civic life, as Villa sees it. During the public comment portion, several residents stepped forward to hurl insults at Aguirre's opponents.

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