The Pull of the Center

David E. Hayes-Bautista is a professor of medicine at UCLA, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health at the School of Medicine, UCLA, and an associate editor with the Pacific News Service

For the first time in 150 years, three Latinos will be running as major-party candidates for statewide offices this November: Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) for lieutenant governor, San Mateo Supervisor Ruben Barrales for controller and Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park) for insurance commissioner. A fourth, Gloria Matta Tuchman, will be competing for the nonpartisan job of state school superintendent. The primary results further show that more and more Latinos are voting, from 6% of the total electorate in 1994 to 12% on Tuesday. Latino voters were seriously courted by Republican and Democrat alike, completing the cycle begun by the "Viva Kennedy" movement in 1960. Even former congressman Bob Dornan sought their support.

Latino elected officials seem quite comfortable with Latinos' growing electoral strength and appeal, although other politicians may remain wary, unsure of what it represents or how to capitalize on it. Perhaps this is because Latino political figures are further along on the learning curve in recognizing a quiet revolution unfolding in California: A new majority composed of Anglos and Latinos may be forming in the middle ground of its society and politics. This emerging majority is not a result of political manifestoes or ballot initiatives. Nor is its progress steady, even assured, as the results on Proposition 227 might suggest. Yet, the overall movement is real, and it flows from the millions of daily interactions and perceptions of ordinary people going about their daily business. A key element in this revolution are the changing Anglo and Latino perceptions of each other.

The findings of a number of studies conducted over the past 10 years highlight two important, but little noticed trends. First, about half the Anglos surveyed are positively disposed toward Latinos, believing that Latinos contribute more to society and the economy than they take from it. These Anglos do have specific concerns about the role Latinos will play in the future, but their anxieties stem more from ignorance of Latinos than any particular experience.

The second trend is that Latino attitudes and behavior answer many of these Anglo concerns in ways that Anglos would find reassuring. But so little dialogue has taken place between the two groups in the past few years, largely because of Propositions 187 and 209, that it is difficult to discern the middle ground they share.

The findings of a study, composed of focus groups and a telephone survey, of Anglo perceptions of Latinos, commissioned by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, help to rough out the new middle ground.

Thirty years ago, said the Anglos who participated in the survey, there was a relatively definite idea of what an "American" was. Today, 80% of them feel that there are many possible definitions of "American-ness." Nearly the same percentage (76%) of Anglos feel that Latinos do not have to give up their culture to become part of American society. "Assimilation doesn't necessarily mean losing your own culture, but coming and coexisting with the culture that exists in a neighborhood," said one participant.

The Anglos' major reservation was a fear that Latinos might be reluctant to claim and share a common ground with them. "It's good to have your independence and to keep your heritage and all that, but you still have to have a common denominator," one said.

Interestingly, most Latinos agree with this. Another, earlier study strongly indicated that Latinos feel that it is as important to learn Anglo American ways as it is to carry on their own. In essence, the norm for Latinos is biculturalism. Assimilation is a "both/and" situation, not a stark "either/or" choice.

These mutually respectful attitudes were partly reflected in some of the primary results. None of the four Latinos who will be running for statewide office could have accomplished their feat without attracting some non-Latino support. The electoral fortunes of Charles M. Calderon serve to amplify this point. He easily won the Latino vote but failed to attract much non-Latino support and finished far behind winner Bill Lockyer in the attorney-general race.

There is a convergence of attitude on another issue, one that has been a subtext in the anti-immigrant debates of the '90s. As one focus-group member in the MALDEF study put it: "If Latinos express 'I feel I can move ahead' when they are around Anglos, it's like saying, 'Yeah, we are on the same wavelength.' "

For more than 30 years, minority status and poverty have been linked in U.S. policy. It is true that Latinos have higher rates of poverty than non-Latinos, especially the half of Latinos who are immigrants. Yet, Latino immigrant poverty is more akin to that of European immigrants at the turn the century than that of the urban underclass.

Most Latino immigrants who come to California believe that hard work will get them ahead. While nearly half are poor when they arrive, they gradually rise up the economic ladder. After 20 years in the United States, more than 80% of them have moved out of poverty. They do so mostly by virtue of their own efforts, since, proportionately, immigrant Latinos are less likely to take advantage of public programs such as Medi-Cal, Social Security and SSI than other groups with similar incomes. But this "escalator effect," paradoxically, makes it appear that Latinos are mired in poverty: Just as a cohort of Latino immigrants moves out of poverty, new arrivals take their place at the bottom of the job escalator.

Anglos, even those who do not feel positively disposed toward Latinos, respect the Latino work ethic. Yet, no politician, Anglo or Latino, has built upon this common value as a means of binding Californians together.

An issue ripe for considerable Latino-Anglo misunderstanding is language, as the primary results on the fate of bilingual education demonstrated. In surveys, Anglos consistently have said that Latinos should learn at least some English. But they also have said that learning English does not have to come at the expense of Spanish. In the MALDEF survey, more than 90% of the Anglos felt that Latinos should speak both English and Spanish. Less than 10% felt that Latinos should speak English only.

The worry expressed by Anglos was not that Latinos might want to maintain their Spanish, but, rather, that Latinos might not want to learn English. One focus-group participant said, "If they come to the U.S. as a grown-up, it's very difficult to learn English . . . but I think they should at least make the attempt."

Latinos agree with this sentiment. More than 90% of Latino adults in the MALDEF survey agreed that learning English is important, and that everyone in California should know some English.

Both Anglo and Latino parents also are concerned about their children's language skills. Both agree that people who know two languages are better equipped for success than those who know only one. The vast majority of Anglo and Latino parents would like their children to learn Spanish as well as English.

Yet, the results of the Proposition 227 vote definitely suggest, in the least, sharp disagreement over methods. Latino voters rejected the proposition by nearly the same two-to-one margin that Anglo voters supported it. A mutual interest that should bring the two voting groups together--a desire that their children master English and pick up Spanish--is not yet strong enough to overcome Latino fears of discrimination.

There were many factors that may have changed Latinos' initial support for the proposition into outright rejection, including last-minute ad campaigns and the fact that all four major gubernatorial candidates opposed it. But despite the best efforts of many Latino politicians not to racialize the issue, a majority of Latinos remain sensitive to what they perceive to be "wedge" propositions.

There may be an opportunity here. Most Latino leaders in California represent districts that do not have a Latino majority. To remain successful, they must appeal to the emerging middle ground being staked out by many Anglos and Latinos. The language question may just be the right issue for them to articulate a larger, more comprehensive vision that would build on both Latino and Anglo desires that their children be bilingual. They might begin where one Anglo focus-group participant left off: "I am not saying homogenize. [I'm saying] unify."

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