Were it not for Latinos, the presumptive
Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, would have
no credible claim to being a "compassionate conservative." Were
it not for his outreach efforts, nobody would be calling Latino
voters the soccer moms of the 2000 campaign. In large part,
Bush's reputation as an inclusive politician stems from his
onetime success in garnering 40% of the Mexican American vote
in his home state of Texas. That 1998 milestone was enough to
put the national Latino vote more in play this year than in
recent campaigns and create welcome competition for a growing
bloc of voters that Democrats have long taken for granted.
While nobody is predicting that Bush will win a majority of
Latino votes this November, recent polls show he could capture
up to 35%. When it's all over, however, analysts will probably
conclude that this year's results will not tell us anything
about Latino political behavior in the long run. After all,
Richard M. Nixon received about one-third of the Latino vote
in 1972. But there is one aspect of the 2000 presidential campaign
that may make Latino cultural history. In a country that has
long had an ambivalent relationship with Mexican immigration,
and in a political party that has never seemed to care, Bush
is proudly proclaiming that Mexican Americans are, well, family.
Former President George Bush once called them his "secret weapons."
In the 1988 presidential campaign, he tried to attract Latino
voters by mentioning his three half-Mexican grandchildren, the
children of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Mexican-born wife,
Columba. But the strategy backfired when he referred to them
in the presence of Nancy and Ronald Reagan as his "little brown
ones." Although no one ever articulated why, activists insisted
his description was offensive, and the elder Bush wound up portrayed
as just another insensitive Republican.
But this year, the eldest of the little brown ones, George
P. Bush, is old enough to hit the campaign trail on his own.
And the message he is pitching on behalf of his uncle is not
only eye-opening; it also says a whole lot about the evolution
of Latino identity in the U.S.
A generation ago, a child of an Anglo U.S. governor and a Mexican
immigrant mother probably would not be called "Latino." Despite
the usual romantic rap about maintaining cultural identity,
assimilation for most immigrant groups has always been about
survival. Now as ever, parents tend to impart the behaviors,
identities and languages they believe will best benefit their
children's life in America. Forty years ago, when Latinos were
politically, socially and culturally marginalized, and there
was no Latino middle class to speak of, most Latino parents
didn't encourage their children to speak Spanish for fear it
would invite discrimination.
Today, in the era of the burgeoning "Latino market," bilingualism
and Latinidad offer distinct advantages in the marketplace and
politics. The tide of assimilation has turned, and the shame
once attached to being Mexican in America is disappearing.
In all the hoopla about the Latinization of America, it's forgotten
that native-born ethnic identification is not the same as immigrant
identity. The difference is that cultural identity is still
a largely voluntary allegiance for the ethnic, but not for the
immigrant. English-dominant Mexican Americans, particularly
those of mixed ancestry, can stress their ethnicity when it's
convenient and obscure it when it's not. A generation ago, when
being Mexican in America was still synonymous with being poor
and marginal, upwardly mobile Mexican Americans were reluctant
to call attention to anything that could impede their access
to the overwhelmingly Anglo middle class.
Conversely, the chasm between "Mexican-ness" and American-ness"
allowed Chicano movement ideologues in the late 1960s and '70s
to forge "essentialist" conceptions of Mexican American experience.
By defining the essence of Latino identity as working or lower
class, early Chicano intellectuals characterized Mexican Americans
who achieved middle-class status as cultural traitors or "sellouts."
Their ethnic nationalism called for cultural, political and
class unity as well as homogeneity. Their simplistic definition
of ethnicity allowed the most radical activists to claim cultural
ownership and decide who was "truly" Latino.
But as the Latino middle class has grown over the past few
decades, the definition of Latino has broadened. Upwardly mobile
Mexican Americans have begun to define their ethnicity in a
way that is compatible with achieving success in America, not
just a milestone along the road to assimilation. Growing numbers,
class diversification and the opening up of mainstream American
cultural attitudes have all converged to help Latinos recast
their ethnicity as a vehicle, not an impediment, to prosperity.
Some have worried that this rise in Mexican Americans' ethnic
confidence will inhibit full assimilation into the U.S. mainstream.
But contrary to myth, assimilation has never required the obliteration
of ethnic identity. Throughout U.S. history, assimilation was
never about people of different racial, religious and cultural
backgrounds becoming homogenous. Instead, as pioneering sociologist
Robert E. Park wrote in 1930, it is the process by which people
of diverse backgrounds achieve a cultural solidarity sufficient
to sustain a national existence. Ethnic pride does not, by definition,
prevent people from believing that they are part of a larger
family of Americans.
If anything, anti-Mexican sentiment was a far greater inhibitor
to Mexican acculturation. The non-upwardly mobile bore the brunt
of society's prejudice, and defiance and withdrawal were common
responses. Today's growing Latino confidence, on the other hand,
makes the journey from ethnic "Mexican-ness" to "American-ness"
much easier. It's no longer a matter of choosing one identity
over the other.
All immigrant groups to America have faced ethnic prejudice
in their earliest stages of social integration. But because
Mexican labor has been recruited in the U.S. during boom times
and expelled during busts, Mexican Americans have had to weather
cyclical waves of anti-Latino sentiment. Meantime, countless
other ethnic groups have been stripped of their foreignness
and have achieved mainstream acceptance over the past 100 years.
In 1939, Life magazine complimented Italian American ballplayer
Joe DiMaggio for not reeking of garlic or using grease in his
hair. But by his retirement, it called him an All-American hero.
In recent years, more and more Latino political and pop cultural
figures have been making that same transition. Their Hispanicity
is no longer considered at odds with their being fully American,
and in the process, they help normalize the image of Latinos
for society at large. In a small way, so do the three television
ads George P. has made on behalf of the Bush campaign. In a
series of 30-second spots, the 24-year-old bilingual future
law student with olive skin and black hair extols his pride
in ethnicity while boasting of the candidate's virtues. After
praising his uncle, he asks: "His name? The same as mine. George
Bush." The melding of the young man's self-declared Latino-ness
and his patrician pedigree is seamless.
None of this is to say that the George P. ads will persuade
Latino voters to cast their ballots for his uncle in November.
In the end, their ultimate value may be more cultural than political.
But when aired in the heavily Latino regions of the country,
they are bound to raise eyebrows, if only for the reason that
no one has ever met a Latino whose middle name is Prescott.
Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times