Mexico Moves North
Mexican immigrants meet American politics.
Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, Peter Skerry, The Free Press, 1993, 463 pp., $27.95
Like so many contemporary books on racial or ethnic questions, Mexican Americans can be profitably read for information, but its analysis is blinkered. Peter Skerry, who teaches political science at UCLA, occasionally stumbles across a useful insight about immigration or racial politics but, as we shall see, the larger issues have completely eluded him.
Despite the book’s title, it is more an account of Mexican-American politics than a general study about Mexican immigrants. Most American Hispanics are Mexicans, so apart from Puerto Ricans in New York and Cubans in Miami, it is probably a good general portrait of Hispanic politics.
Prof. Skerry reports that, like all Latin Americans, Mexicans are mainly interested in private concerns and have a deep cynicism about public life. He suggests that Mexican-American politicians tend to be open to corruption and that they have little sense of service. They also have distinctive relations with voters, though these vary greatly from region to region.
San Antonio, Texas, for example, has an old and stable population of Mexicans, and politicians represent real constituencies. In Los Angeles, however, politicians are an unrepresentative elite who keep voters at a distance. This is mainly because it takes a lot of money to run for office in California, and Mexicans do not like to contribute to campaigns. As Prof. Skerry explains, financial backers have, from the beginning, been a heavily Jewish group of white liberals.
This means that politicians do not rise from the community but are, to use Prof. Skerry’s words, “parachuted” into Hispanic areas and “have a carpetbagging mentality.” The beneficiaries of these “sponsored candidacies” do not live in the Mexican ghettos of East L.A. but in nearby areas that are whiter and pleasanter.
Some politicians actually discourage voter participation and volunteer work because it is easier to deal with rich donors than to be beholden to constituents. Pleasing backers may mean betraying voters. Mexicans are more likely to oppose abortion than nearly any other group in America but since white liberals support it, Mexican politicians do too. As a consequence, they avoid Catholic churches, which might otherwise be natural campaigning sites. Politicians also get support from liberal feminists, whom ordinary Mexicans find incomprehensible. Prof. Skerry quotes one bewildered Mexican who has worked with them: “We don’t hate our men.”
Since the money comes from liberals, Mexican politicians are overwhelmingly Democrats. A few drift into the Republican party, but not out of commitment. Republicans are wooing non-whites as frantically as Democrats and as one fair-weather Republican explains to Prof. Skerry, “The line is shorter over there.”
Until the 1960s, it was common for Mexican-American spokesmen to oppose large-scale immigration from Mexico, but affirmative action and current interpretations of the Voting Rights Act have completely changed that. The law now requires Hispanic-majority districts, and safe seats are catnip to politicians.
Now, according to a poll of Mexican “leaders,” half are in favor of completely opening the border and the rest want minimal restrictions on immigration. Since redistricting is based on population rather than on a count of citizens, Prof. Skerry points out that a heavily Hispanic district can be a “rotten burrough,” with relatively few voters to bother about. Millions of illegals, even though they cannot vote, mean more political sinecures for “carpetbaggers.”
Affirmative action and the ease with which whites can be manipulated also make immigration appealing. A rising Mexican population means ever-larger job quotas, and because the newcomers live in miserable conditions, politicians can rail self-righteously about substandard housing, crime, overcrowded schools, and the “racist oppression” that they claim causes it all.
Although Prof. Skerry doesn’t seem to understand why, other Mexicans are much less sanguine about increased immigration. Unlike “sponsored candidates,” who live among whites, ordinary Mexicans feel the pinch when pre-literates swarm into their neighborhoods. In East L.A., people build illegal shanties in their back yards, turn their garages into rooming houses, and park cars on their front lawns. They set their laundry out to dry on bushes, and play bingo with animal pictures because they cannot read numbers. They turn California into Mexico, and Mexico is precisely what ordinary immigrants thought they were leaving behind.
Although Mexican “leaders” like to suppress this information, a great many immigrants would be glad to seal the border. The closer an immigrant lives to Mexico and the larger the number of recent immigrants in his nieghborhood, the more he favors immigration control, and is against amnesty and social services for illegals. It is educated Mexicans, who live far from the effects of what they advocate, who yell about open borders.
Race and dispossession
Prof. Skerry seems genuinely puzzled by race. Nearly half of all Mexican-Americans tell census takers they are white, so that is what he thinks they are — though a glance at the dust jacket photos of his own book would show him that most Mexicans are no more like Europeans than Chinese are. Prof. Skerry is so convinced that Hispanics are white that he constantly writes about “Anglos,” and when he reports the results of polls that refer to whites, he puts the word in quotation marks!
He has noticed that the media switch back and forth between calling Mexicans Hispanic and white, but he has not figured out why. He seems to understand that if the victim of a police beating is a Mexican he will be called Hispanic, but he is bewildered that Theodore Briseo, one of the four officers who beat Rodney King, was constantly referred to as white.
Prof. Skerry reports regretfully that Mexican-Americans do not like blacks. They are outspokenly opposed to busing because they do not want their children to mix with blacks. When the populations do mix, racial gang fights are routine. The most hard-boiled, anti-white Chicano activists have long preached a “black-brown coalition” against the white man, but ordinary Mexicans want nothing to do with blacks.
Prof. Skerry takes it for granted that blacks deserve racial preferences and notes that both the media and American institutions encourage Mexicans to make the same demands. It has occurred to him, though, that two-thirds of all Mexican-Americans have come here within the last 20 years — all voluntarily and many illegally. After considerable throat clearing, he unbosoms the daring view that it may be disingenuous for Mexicans to set themselves up as a persecuted minority.
Prof. Skerry reports that virtually all Mexicans assume they have a right to live in the Southwest because it was once part of Mexico and they are a “conquered people.” He usefully points out that at the end of the Mexican-American War, only four percent of the population of the Southwest was Mexican, and that these 80,000 or so people were only one percent of the population of Mexico. Still, even though he writes of California schools “innundated with hundreds of thousands of immigrants,” he never suggests that Mexicans should stay home.
|Prof. Skerry reports regretfully that Mexican-Americans do not like blacks.|
Prof. Skerry notes that all Mexican-American politicians expect the demographic tide to keep rising and to sweep them on to ever-greater power, but he fails to understand their confidence. He quotes a participant of the struggle for control of a Texas school board as saying that it was about “the definition of the community,” but does not seem to care who wins. He writes of the “understandable anxieties of millions of Americans that our nation is undergoing a momentous transformation without much honest or realistic debate about the possible consequences,” but he dismisses these anxieties as “beside the point,” because many Hispanics are learning English. He then notes that 78 percent of Hispanic officials agree with the statement, “Since Hispanics are becoming a very large part of the American population, bilingual programs are equally important for Anglo children,” and concedes that this is “provocative.”
In one of the stupidest passages in the whole book, he clucks over the fact that more Hispanics than blacks were arrested during the Los Angeles riots, but adds “it is still not clear what conclusions can be drawn.” One of the most obvious is that if they had not been here they would not have rioted.
All of this can be explained as the usual liberal blindness to the obvious, but not everything Prof. Skerry says can be so easily excused. Several times, he passes along the view that Mexicans have strong “family values” and are disdainful of government assistance. Nowhere does he tell the reader that Hispanic children are twice as likely as whites to be illegitimate and considerably less likely (67 percent v. 79 percent) to be living with two parents. Nor does he mention that Hispanics are up to 100 times more likely than whites to have venereal diseases and three times more likely be on welfare.
A child’s family life is said to have a strong influence on whether he enters a gang. Los Angeles has an estimated 415 gangs with approximately 60,000 members, of which fully 57 percent are Hispanic (and 36 percent are black). Family values, indeed. Prof. Skerry can hardly not know some of these facts, and his silence borders on deception.
As for sins of commission, the most preposterous statement in the whole book may be what follows Prof. Skerry’s assurance that the question is not whether Hispanics will assimilate into American society, but how. “We must recognize that defining themselves as a [racial] minority group may be the way this new wave of immigrants assimilates into the new American political system,” he writes. Of course, it is as a racial minority group that Hispanics demonstrate that they have not assimilated. Prof. Skerry’s definition of assimilation is testimony both to his powers of fantasy and to the extent to which American political discourse has lost its bearings.