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A Campaign for Another Country

<i> Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation."</i>

The most talked-about people in this California electoral season are not running for office, not even voting. They are standing off-stage. The rest of us know they are there. “They” are young, often immigrant, poor. They are everywhere in California--the future, el futuro.

A few weeks ago, at a debate among the four leading candidates for governor, the questions were more interesting than the answers, which seemed canned. But the questions concerned California’s coming majority, the first-grade, assimilation, diversity.

Not coincidentally, Proposition 227, the initiative that will determine the future of bilingual education, has attracted much attention, perhaps more than the governor’s race. Californians worry less about which candidate will ultimately occupy the governor’s office in Sacramento than about uncharted cultural changes awaiting us in the new California.

In truth, there is nothing very “new” about today’s multiracial, multicultural, multilingual California. California, as U.S. territory, was born from the collision of Latin and Anglo America. Then, after gold was discovered in 1848, desperate men from every part of the world--from Australia, from China, from Peru, from Scotland--rushed here. California became the crossroads of the world as men jostled in the mud for the chance to spin the wheel of fortune.

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Today, 150 years after gold was discovered, Californians recognize (often with foreboding) that we have “suddenly” become a world society. That notion would be unsettling enough for many Californians; what’s worse is the realization that California has “suddenly” become the nation’s largest Latino state, and Los Angeles a Latin American capitol.

This season, Hollywood’s middle-aged adolescents are spinning tales of tumbling comets and Godzilla run amok in New York. California political scientists speak of Latinos waking up to the implications of their numbers.

A telling moment in the governor’s race came last week when the major candidates stood before an assembly of Latino fat cats. Though everyone in the audience doubtless spoke English, political theater required a debate in Spanish. What debate? The candidates merely rivaled each other with their adjectives praising immigrants, praising Latinos. Then, each candidate, in English, denounced 227 (with simultaneous Spanish translation).

Despite the presumption of the candidates that anyone with a Spanish surname is necessarily in favor of bilingual education, Latino opinion is not uniform. Polls suggest that large numbers of Latinos will vote for Proposition 227; many of us are outraged by the failure of public schools to teach Latino children well enough to stay in school.

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Up and down the state, it’s true, I hear strong opposition to Proposition 227 in the new California. For example, the feisty and buoyant new ethnic media--Filipino and Indian newspapers, Chinese and Spanish-language radio stations--are almost unanimous in their opposition to 227. It’s less an argument about pedagogy one hears than a cry for self-determination: Don’t tell us what to do!

In San Francisco, the dragon is smoking. More than a decade ago, Chinese parents began voicing impatience with a black and white education bureaucracy that took them for granted. More recently, Willie Brown, the city’s mayor, was outmaneuvered by a group of Chinese housewives who forced a referendum to rebuild an earthquake-damaged freeway. Now, at Chinese banquets around the city, one senses growing political confidence among Asians, the scent of perfume and power.

The assertiveness of the new Californians is threatening to many other Californians, white and black. Many are also annoyed by a bureaucratic arrogance within the bilingual establishment, the implication that “We’re in charge now.” The most important case for the Proposition 227 campaign, after all, has been a black student in Oakland who was (without his father’s knowledge) herded into a Cantonese classroom in order to fill some bilingual quota.

For months, Californians have publicly debated pedagogy. How best to teach an immigrant child? But an ugly screech sounds from the edges on both sides of the debate: garish neo-nationalism from one corner, xenophobia from the other.

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The best word, the polite word, we use to talk about what is going on in California today is “diversity"--a shrink-wrapped word, a meaningless term, a Canadian platitude. In Canada, multiculturalism is government policy. The “mosaic” has become the favored national metaphor (many colors, each separate, united to form one nation). Diversity is the holy word floating over all.

Is California becoming Canadian? Our academics and politicians certainly sound the Canadian anthem with their reliance on multiculturalism. But my suspicion is that Mexico, not Canada, holds the key to the future of California.

Mexico has no notion of multiculturalism. Mexico is a nation formed by the mestizaje. From its birth, despite violence and death, Mexico has been created by the literal mixing of blood. Indian marrying European marrying African marrying Asian. Mexicans today speak of la raza cosmica, as the nation’s best achievement.

Mexican California? A few weeks ago, editors at the New Yorker magazine put blond surfers on the cover of their “California issue.” What anyone living west of the Hudson River knows is that a different California, more complex, is forming. Today’s surfers in Santa Cruz are as likely to be Filipino as blond, and they are, in any case, dating Chinese. They are modern mestizos.

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Latino politicos would, frankly, prefer that you not understand very much about Latino racial complexity. In fact, there is no such thing as a Latino race; in fact, Latinismo challenges the very notion of a singular race, though, last year, Latino civil rights groups in Washington unsuccessfully fought the federal government’s decision to include a “mixed race” category on U.S. Census forms.

If we were less afraid of one another, we would recognize that the growing interest in politics among Latinos and Asians is the key to our reconciliation, not the obstacle to it. Latinos and Asians no longer want to be left on the outside.

Identity politics may sound divisive, but its intent is social mobility. The result of that mobility will be inclusion and mixture. Just as the Irish used identity politics in the 19th century to get inside the door, so today’s Latinos use their ethnic badge to get noticed in Sacramento and Washington.

The irony is that Latinos as a political force will diminish as the United States becomes more culturally Latin American. Precisely as California becomes more Mexican (more mestizo), a distinct Latino political agenda will become impossible to sustain because we Californians will be too mixed, too intermarried to entertain separate racial/ethnic identities.

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What remains, finally, is economic class, the issue no one wants to talk about despite all the chatter devoted to diversity. In the debate over bilingual education, for example, no one troubles to distinguish between middle-class bilingualism and the dilemma of the poor who need to learn how to use public language.

In the gubernatorial debates, no word floated more often or more uneasily over the heads of the major candidates--uniformly white, uniformly well-off--than did “diversity.” Yes, yes, the candidates assured us, they plan to staff their administrations with women, Asians, Latinos, blacks--apparently like themselves. (Never a word about lower-class whites in the new California.) There was Rep. Jane Harman always quick to proclaim herself “the outsider,” a symbol of the new California, because she is a woman, albeit the wife of a multimillionaire.

For weeks and weeks now, journalists have stopped by my house with their microphones and note pads. They came to ask me about the new California. German TV. Australian radio. Canada phoned to ask if Southern California is destined to become “the new Quebec.”

I told them, whether or not Proposition 227 passes, children of poverty, whatever their race, will continue to attend inferior schools. Poor whites will have more in common with poor Latinos in the new California than poor Latinos will have with me. I told them that Spanish will remain the language of cheap labor. And I told them that my nephew, with his Scottish surname, goes to a fancy prep school where he learns three languages, Spanish among them. He looks Italian, dates blondes, and calls himself (and truly is!) Latino in the new California.

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