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Two Men Who Were More Than Hyphens in a Hyphenated Melting Pot

<i> Frank del Olmo is an editorial writer for The Times</i>

Two good men died recently--two first-generation Mexican-Americans whose work affected all Latinos in this country, although neither of them was ever widely celebrated.

Ralph C. Guzman, 60, a political-science professor at UC Santa Cruz, and Enrique (Hank) Lopez, 65, a Los Angeles lawyer and writer, did many important things in their lives. They didn’t do dramatic things, such as organizing demonstrations or staging protests. Lopez ran for public office once, and Guzman briefly held an important post in Washington. But their real effect came though writing books and articles that influenced Americans’ understanding of the Latino community in their midst, and Latinos’ understanding of themselves.

Guzman and Lopez began studying Latino community issues in the 1950s, long before ethnic studies became fashionable. While younger, angrier Latinos talked about nationalism and revolution in the 1960s, Guzman and Lopez looked for ways in which Latinos could reconcile themselves to American society rather than break away from it.

Guzman, who lived in East Los Angeles as a boy, used to laugh when he recalled being chased by barrio punks who considered him a sissy for studying and getting good grades in school. As a professor at Cal State Los Angeles and other schools, he helped educate the children of many of those same men.

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During the Vietnam War, Guzman did the first research on Latino casualty figures coming out of Southeast Asia and determined that Chicanos from the five Southwestern states were being killed and wounded at twice the rate of their numbers in the general population. To the extent that there was any anti-war sentiment in the Latino community, Guzman’s research spawned it.

Guzman did not forget the disparity in Latino casualty rates when he became a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter and helped formulate U.S. policies for Central America that were far less aggressive than the stance being taken by the Reagan Administration. Guzman said that he didn’t want Latino kids dying in a needless war anywhere.

Lopez was more a public figure than Guzman. In 1958 he was the Democratic candidate for California secretary of state, the first Latino to run for statewide office in many years. He lost, and to this day some Latinos will argue bitterly that the Democratic Party did not give Lopez enough support in that campaign.

But Lopez was not bitter. There was no room for angry ego in his gregarious personality. Only someone with Lopez’s self-deprecating sense of humor could enjoy telling stories about how his father, a native of Chihuahua who fled to Colorado during the Mexican Revolution, was the only private in Pancho Villa’s army.

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But Lopez could be introspective, too, as when he wrote about the unique cultural dilemma that Mexican-Americans face in the United States: North American society pulls them in one direction while the culture of their forebears’ homeland, always nearby, pulls them in another. That cultural challenge has been written about many times, but no one ever summarized it as poignantly as Lopez did in an article for Horizon magazine in 1967.

It was called “Back to Bachimba.” From the opening sentence, “I am a pocho from Bachimba, a rather small Mexican village in the state of Chihuahua,” it is thought-provoking. Pocho is a derogatory term that Mexicans use to denigrate Mexican-Americans who put on gringo airs, and the article described the cultural trauma that Lopez faced as a young man when he tried to return to Mexico after attending Harvard Law School. It was a painfully honest piece in which he admitted that he could not always bridge the culture gap between Mexico and the United States.

“I, for one, am convinced that I have no true home, that I must reconcile myself to a schizo-cultural limbo, with a mere hyphen to provide some slight cohesion between my split selves,” he concluded. "(Still) we hyphenated Americans are here to stay, bubbling happily or unhappily in the great American melting pot. Much has been gained and will be gained from the multi-ethnic aspects of the United States, and there is no useful purpose in attempting to wish it away or to homogenize it out of existence.”

Those eloquent words could well serve as an epitaph not just for Lopez but also for Guzman. Both tried to deal with the duality of being Mexican-Americans as honestly as they could. Both were intellectuals, in the best sense of that often-maligned word. They were thoughtful and intelligent professionals who tried to help their community by analyzing its problems, even if their conclusions were contrary to what other Latinos wanted to believe. And rather than promoting their ideas through personal activism, they preferred to write them down and let others act.

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The fact that so many Latinos did act on them--and still do--is a tribute to how important those ideas were.


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