Don’t Mistake the Parts for the Whole in L.A.

Gregory Rodriguez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute

Gone were the breathless news stories announcing the arrival of the “new Los Angeles.” No ethnic or ideological movement swept the city. But on Tuesday, Los Angeles moved quietly--and quite naturally--into a new political era as City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo completed his first full day in office and Alex Padilla was elected City Council president. Thus two of the three most powerful positions in Los Angeles city government are now being held by Mexican Americans.

Last month, Newsweek glibly called James K. Hahn’s victory over Antonio Villaraigosa in the mayoral race a “brownout.” Disappointed partisans implied that L.A.'s “Latino future” had somehow been put on hold.

Yet equating Villaraigosa’s candidacy with the culmination of a massive demographic shift not only unduly burdened the former Assembly speaker, it mistook the part for the whole. It also reduced the region’s ongoing ethnic transition to a zero-sum game in which, presumably, there are winners and losers.

The long-term process of incorporating immigrants and their children into the Los Angeles mainstream should not be considered in terms of winning and losing. As sociologist Amitai Etzioni recently wrote, to either celebrate or decry the “browning of America” is implicitly racist. It wrongly assumes that the country’s new ethnic makeup will fundamentally alter the national ethos and that members of emergent ethnic groups do not share the same basic aspirations and principles with other Americans.


The media’s incessant drumbeat about the region’s ethnic metamorphosis has fundamentally misunderstood the slow, incremental, evolutionary nature of cultural and ethnic fusion. Perhaps in a search for drama, we’ve been wasting energy dividing the city between the old and the new and anticipating some dramatic break between the two.

The steady focus on so-called ethnic “communities,” those mythical, mutually exclusive entities with their own agendas and leaders, has obscured the more profound, organic process by which Angelenos--particularly the young--live and work together in a complex series of concentric communities that transcend simple ethnic categorization. Only in textbooks do ethnic groups live in vacuums and do cultures change over in cleanly definable shifts.

In reality, both the newcomers and the long established are transforming each other through a combination of mutual cooperation, conflict and competition. In 1950, when Los Angeles was already the second-largest Mexican city in the world, poet Octavio Paz wrote that L.A.'s “Mexicanism ... floats in the air,” never mixing with the American world of precision and efficiency.

Half a century later, the sight of a 28-year-old MIT-trained engineer and child of immigrants, Alex Padilla, presiding over the Los Angeles City Council signals the beginning of an era that should be characterized not by talk of ethnic dominance or “takeovers” but of cultural and ethnic integration.


In the late 1920s, U.S. Rep. John C. Box of Texas warned his colleagues on the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee that the continued influx of Mexican immigrants could lead to the “distressing process of mongrelization” in the U.S. He argued that because most Mexicans were products of mixing among whites and Indians and sometimes blacks, they had a casual attitude toward interethnic relations and were likely to mix freely in the U.S.

His vitriol notwithstanding, Box was right about Mexicans not keeping to themselves. Apart from the cultural isolation of immigrants, subsequent generations are oriented toward an American mainstream culture to which they have begun to add their influence.

Mexican Americans--and Latinos as a whole--cannot be properly understood as a mutually exclusive racial, linguistic or cultural category in a nation of competing minorities. They do not share the overarching ethnic narrative--what Martin Buber called the “vocation of uniqueness"--of Jews. Nor do they have a shared history of oppression that has united African Americans and forged what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double-consciousness"--an unreconciled tension in being black and American.

The continued Mexicanization of Los Angeles--and, indeed, America--must be understood in terms of cultural blending rather than replacement. As with this week’s shift in L.A. city government, the most fundamental changes are likely to occur quietly and without the overburdened ethnic iconography of this year’s mayoral campaign.

The political agents of this change may surprise those who have romanticized or feared the region’s ethnic metamorphosis. Like L.A.'s new City Council president and city attorney, they are likely to be all-American public figures who played baseball at MIT or football at Harvard.