The smoldering struggle

Special to The Times

AS my father remembers it, the first trip from Mexico to downtown Los Angeles was cramped. He left his hometown of Jomulquillo, Zacatecas, in 1968 on a bus headed for Tijuana. Two days later, he reached the border town. There, he and three other men paid two San Clemente hippie girls $50 apiece one Friday morning so they could squeeze into the trunk of a Chevrolet.

The hippies crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with their cargo that afternoon. They didn't stop until reaching Chinatown about three hours later, where my father emerged dehydrated but happy. He met two of his brothers, and they ducked into a bar for some drinks before driving to East Los Angeles.

My father arrived in a Los Angeles under siege. The Latino community, beset by decades of discrimination and harassment, was angry. Calling themselves Chicanos, Latinos demanded better schools, a fairer government and less police brutality. There were protest rallies and marches. The city leaders responded with violence -- arrests and beatings. In 1970, Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar was killed by a tear-gas projectile fired by police during an East L.A. protest against the Vietnam War.

Yet for all the turmoil, Papi was oblivious to this chaos. He was 19 years old and ready to work. So were millions of his countrymen who would follow him across the border in the coming weeks, years and decades, all ready to change America for good.

Pundits have predicted the Latinization of America for years, often in apocalyptic terms -- witness the fulminations of radio and television talk shows. Many people can't accept the fact that the heirs to imperial Spain, the scions of Pancho Villa, are the nation's largest minority, and increasingly a majority in communities across los Estados Unidos.

Some call this reconquista -- the idea (born from a bizarre fusion of pre-Columbian Aztec, medieval Spanish and post-revolutionary Mexican mythologies) that Mexicans are intent on reclaiming ancestral lands "stolen" by the Yankee imperialists. But this theory pays no heed to the centuries-old yells of America's Latinos. All they've ever wanted is acceptance, the right to live as Americans while keeping some semblance of their ancestral culture. Latinos assimilate, but many Americans just don't want to believe it.

More than in Miami, New York or Texas, Los Angeles is where Latinos' struggle for acceptance finds its truest expression in the United States. Californios became foreigners in their own lands after the 1848 Mexican-American War, and a nuisance for nearly a century afterward. The hometown film industry reduced them to stock characters -- the spicy senorita, the greasy bandito -- and exported the images across the country. Segregation and discrimination was the rule.

When Latinos made the news, violence was often part of the story -- the Zoot Suit Riots, the forceful eviction of Chavez Ravine residents to make way for Dodger Stadium. To be Latino in the days before the Chicano movement was to be a spectator to your own beating in your frontyard.

Latinos didn't take such affronts lightly. In Orange County, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez won a suit against the Westminster School District in 1947 to allow their children to attend nonsegregated schools; their efforts served as a precedent for Brown vs. Board of Education. Two years later, World War II veteran Edward R. Roybal was elected to the L.A. City Council, which he eventually parlayed into a seat in Congress; his pioneering role continues to inspire the Latino politicians that now dominate local politics.

Then came the 1960s. While the Chicano movement invigorated the body politic, a ceaseless influx of immigrant Latinos brought numbers. As their population increased, Latinos demanded more. When TV stations didn't meet their needs, they created KMEX-TV Channel 34, the embryo from which the Univision juggernaut originated. When Latinos tired of the traditional East L.A. and Valley barrios, they worked hard, saved and moved into the suburbs -- long populated by working-class whites -- between Los Angeles proper and central Orange County. There, they proceeded to do what immigrants have always done: change neighborhoods and institutions to reflect their culture.

Most of the attention in the debate over how Latinos will influence this country centers on these immigrants, who stubbornly cling to their Spanish and motherland ways. But it's their children -- people like myself, like L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and so many others -- who offer the best example of the Latinization of the United States. We're as American as nachos, but we're also cognizant of our past, present and future. Our parents created the Los Angeles of today. We will create the Los Angeles of manana: firmly planted in the United States, but finally accepting of its Latino reality.

This year, Latinos won election to the assemblies and senates of New Hampshire, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota and Maryland, states rarely discussed as part of America's new Latino order. Other areas across the United States are now experiencing what Southern California did decades ago -- initial resistance, and then wary acceptance, as Latinos become a part of local institutions and culture.

When Latinos took to the streets earlier this spring and marched for amnesty, their message was the same as that uttered by previous generations: Let us be Americans. Let us live. Accept the present and future.

Let them become like my father. He lived as an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles and Orange County for about a decade before becoming a citizen thanks to the 1986 amnesty.

He owns a beautiful home in Anaheim, helped raise three college-educated kids, votes absentee in every election and thinks we need tougher immigration laws. He is, in other words, as red, white and blue as anyone, except with a dash of brown.

Gustavo Arellano writes the ¡Ask a Mexican! column for the OC Weekly.

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