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Autumn 1993
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The New Politics of Assimilation
Peter Skerry
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Peter Skerry teaches political science at UCLA. Here be gives a synopsis of his book, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, The Free Press, nominated for the 1993 Los Angeles Times Book Critics Circle Award.

After years of indifference, Americans have recently become concerned about the millions of immigrants flooding into their cities. Newcomers from Mexico are one of the largest and most visible immigrant groups. Reacting to the clamor for Spanish-language ballots and bilingual education, many fear that this growing population cannot or will not assimilate into the mainstream of American life. In Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, I argue that such fears are largely misplaced and that Mexican immigrants and their offspring will, as they have in the past, learn English, gradually move up the social and economic ladder, and sing the national anthem at Dodger Stadium.

Nonetheless, there is reason to be concerned that, having joined the mainstream, Mexican Americans will see themselves not as individual citizens but as members of a group deserving special treatment and protection. Although they are learning English, for instance, Mexican Americans may still demand special rights for Spanish. The critical question, therefore, is not whether Mexican Americans will assimilate, but how—on what terms.

Mexican Americans are at a crossroads—torn between defining themselves as an immigrant ethnic group that came to this country in pursuit of economic opportunity or as a racial minority group, like black Americans, that sees itself as victimized and therefore deserving of remedies such as affirmative action. Aspects of the historical experience of Mexicans in the American Southwest fits the racial minority pattern. Yet Mexican Americans do not fit neatly into this mold, resembling European immigrants in important respects. They and their political leaders understand this, which is why I refer to Mexican Americans as “the ambivalent minority.”

Most analysts focus on how today’s social and economic context differs from that which greeted newcomers earlier this century. But typically overlooked are the enormous changes that have taken place in the political environment. Gone are the local political institutions, notably the big-city machines, that socialized newcomers into the mainstream of American politics. In their place are institutions shaped by the civil-rights revolution and its progeny, such as affirmative-action programs and the Voting Rights Act. Such efforts leave Mexican-American leaders little choice but to portray their people as a victimized racial group, despite evident social and economic progress. Thus, the challenges posed by the growing population of Mexican Americans are, to a degree widely unappreciated, fundamentally political in nature.

San Antonio and Los Angeles, the two major Mexican-American communities in the Southwest, highlight how the old and new styles of politics shape the assimilation of immigrants. The patronage-driven, neighborhood-based politics of San Antonio hearkens back to the machine politics of eastern cities earlier in this century, whereas politics in Los Angeles is thoroughly reformed, highly professionalized, and media-oriented.

These two cities point to a revealing paradox. Los Angeles has long offered Mexican Americans considerable economic and social mobility. Yet Mexican Americans there and in California generally have fared poorly in politics. Moreover, their activities have been characterized by strident protest and efforts to define the group as a victimized racial minority.

In San Antonio, on the other hand, Mexican-Americans have suffered severe social and economic discrimination—at times even been treated as a racial caste. Despite this history, however, Mexican Americans throughout Texas have achieved far greater political gains than their California cousins. HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, for example, is only the latest of many nationally prominent Mexican-American leaders to emerge from Texas.

This outcome can be explained by the political dynamics in these two cities. In San Antonio, minimal social and economic mobility have fostered close-knit neighborhoods, a strong sense of group identity, and outright anger. Although San Antonio’s politics are often faction-ridden and corrupt, its political system is remarkably open and offers many small offices that can be won by neighborhood campaigns—providing patronage and other benefits with which to reward friends and neighbors. As a result, Mexican-American aspirations and resentments have found an outlet in politics, producing concrete gains while arousing relatively little rancor among Anglos.

In contrast, politics in Los Angeles has long discouraged genuine neighborhood- based efforts. With relatively few elective offices available, political competition is intense and expensive. Moreover, Mexican-American politicos complain that recently arrived immigrants are too preoccupied with economic survival and with avoiding the INS to be interested in politics, while the upwardly mobile move out of the barrios and quickly lose touch with their roots. As a result, the real anger among Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles is found among frustrated activists, who end up relying on university-based cadres to stage media-oriented protests. Meanwhile, a small group of Mexican-American elected officials and their key staffers rely on the pressure generated by such activists to bolster their alliances with Anglo elites, whose support is typically based on the premise that the fundamental problems facing Mexicans are traceable to racial discrimination. Feeling constant pressure to compete with blacks for the attention of such allies, Mexican-American leaders declared after last year’s upheaval, “This was our riot, too”—though in fact the East L.A. barrio was notably quiescent.

Contrary to some recent critiques, my research shows that Mexican-American leaders are not relying on bilingual education or similar policies to create barrio enclaves whose residents they can control. Mexican-American leaders understand perfectly well the powerful assimilative forces that have long been at work in their communities. But they are seeking to enhance their visibility by advocating a virtual open-borders policy. The huge influx of immigrants into cities like Los Angeles masks the up-and-out progress of more settled members of the group, and the problems of the new immigrants provide the basis for claims that Mexican Americans in general suffer from racial discrimination. Finally, the numbers game inspired by affirmative action means that Mexican-American leaders stand to benefit from their group’s steadily increasing population, regardless of whether those numbers translate into votes on election day.

Today, the costs and implications of immigration are much different—and greater—than we typically assume. For contemporary political institutions compel even a moderately successful group like Mexican Americans to define itself as an unsuccessful, victimized racial minority. Without gainsaying the undeniable problems and obstacles that immigrant Mexicans face, our contemporary political culture seems unable to discuss such problems outside the context of racial discrimination. Not only does this foster competition and tension between Mexican Americans and blacks, it also fuels anxieties among Americans generally that here is another group incapable of succeeding on its own. Thus, today’s influx promises to generate political strains of a sort not previously associated with immigration to this nation.

 

 


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