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150 Years Later, Latinos Finally Hit The Mainstream


April 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayoral candidate, carries his daughter, Natalia, after finishing first in the primary on Tuesday. He could be the city's first Latino mayor since 1872.
PHOTO: The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — WHILE Latinos have been an integral part of the American cultural landscape since the mid-19th century, only now are they beginning to gain the broad social acceptance other groups experienced within a few generations of arriving in America. Massive contemporary Latin American immigration, combined with the emergence of a Latino middle class, have forced both political and commercial marketers to rethink their approach to a group on the verge of becoming the nation's largest minority. At the same time, an unprecedented array of political and pop cultural figures have helped normalize the image of Latinos in the mainstream imagination.

For the last two weeks, "Spy Kids," a children's cloak-and-dagger movie about the high-tech adventures of the family of Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, set in an imagined America, part Latin, part Anglo, has been the top-grossing movie in the nation. In Los Angeles on Tuesday, Antonio Villaraigosa, the former speaker of the California State Assembly, won a commanding first-place primary finish in the race to succeed the Republican Richard J. Riordan as mayor of the country's second largest city. And, in his February address to Congress, President Bush introduced Steven and Josefina Ramos of Philadelphia to help illustrate the tax burdens of a typical middle-class American family.

A few years ago, such mainstream depictions of Latinos would have been unthinkable. But having reached critical mass, Latinos are asserting their ethnicity more confidently than ever before. On one hand, large numbers, air travel and the reach of global media have made the Spanish language, and Latin American styles and norms, far more viable on this side of the border. On the other, their growing demographic presence is propelling American-born Latino political and cultural figures into the English-speaking mainstream.

While most waves of immigration have a beginning and end, Latino immigration has been virtually continuous for the past century. This has made the process of Latino integration a perpetual one. Though the self- definition of European-American groups gradually evolved from an immigrant to an ethnic-American identity as time passed, Mexican-Americans particularly have always had to contend with the presence of unassimilated newcomers.

This dynamic didn't so much retard acculturation as sow confusion in the formulation of political and cultural identities. The first sizable group of Latinos to become Americans did so through the conquest and annexation of the Southwest in 1848. So the first image of Latino Americans was one of defeated foreigners. Then mass Anglo-American migration to the West turned the native Spanish-speaking population into a marginalized minority whose "Americanness" would be challenged well into the next century.

While all immigrants faced prejudice during early stages of social integration, Latino Americans have weathered cyclical waves of anti-Latino sentiment. Because Mexican labor has been recruited into the United States during boom times and expelled during busts, native-born Mexican-Americans have suffered the fallout from campaigns ostensibly aimed at their foreign- born cousins. In the 1930's, the fear that Mexicans were taking jobs and benefits from "real" Americans led to the deportation of more than one million people. Some scholars now believe that up to 60 percent of the "Mexicans" forced to leave were United States citizens.

In 1994, the campaign for Proposition 187, the anti- illegal-immigrant ballot initiative in California, degenerated into a racially charged referendum on the state's demographic evolution. While early polls indicated the heavily American-born Latino electorate didn't feel much solidarity with illegal immigrants, a growing belief that the initiative's supporters were not distinguishing between illegal and legal immigrants — or foreign- and American-born Latinos — led Latino voters to soundly reject the measure. But it still passed.

This type of scapegoating not only reinforced the notion of Mexican-Americans as permanent foreigners, but induced many to conceal their background. Upwardly mobile Mexican-Americans have been reluctant to call attention to a heritage that could impede access to the middle class. For decades, it was not uncommon for Latinos to claim an Italian or Spanish background.

Puerto Ricans, the only Latin American immigrants to arrive as United States citizens, came to the national consciousness in the postwar years, particularly through such works as "West Side Story," which depicted them as exotic, volatile troublemakers.

Not until the 1960's and early 1970's did an ideology emerge that encouraged minorities to assert their ethnic identities. Young Mexican-Americans, newly self- anointed as Chicanos, then a politically charged term defining their opposition to white society, became connected — intellectually and emotionally — to an ethnic identity their parents had purposely denied them.

At the same time, the national media discovered Mexican-Americans in the person and activism of the United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez. From then on, Mexican-Americans were viewed through this prism. Though almost 90 percent of West Coast Latinos were urban dwellers by 1970, farm workers came to symbolize the Mexican-American experience. A decade later, the formulation of a generic Hispanic ethnic category obscured fundamental differences among Latin American groups. Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Mexicans were suddenly all Latinos.

In addition, the constant influx of new immigrants is always complicating the task of gauging Latino social mobility. For decades, high poverty rates among new immigrants have weighed down statistics on Hispanics and obscured advances of latter-generation Latino Americans. High intermarriage rates for the most assimilated children and grandchildren of immigrants have long contributed to a peculiar form of Hispanic statistical attrition. As a result, the image of the "authentic" Latino-American at the close of the 20th century wasn't all that different from that of the mid-19th: a defeated ethnic group well out of the mainstream.

BUT in an era of the booming "Latino market," Hispanicity now offers advantages in the marketplace and politics. The shame once attached to being Latino in America is disappearing. Upwardly mobile Latinos have begun to define their ethnicity in a way that is compatible with achieving success in America and not just as a milestone along the road to assimilation. In 1998, just four years after Proposition 187, the growing Latino electorate helped make Lieutenant Governor Cruz M. Bustamante the first Hispanic statewide official in California in more than a century. Today's ethnically transcendent Latino candidates are reminiscent of politicians like Alfred E. Smith, the Irish-American who helped erase the line separating the Irish from other Americans when he became the governor of New York in 1918.

The fields of sport and entertainment are also producing new national Latino icons. Last month, Alex Rodriguez, a Dominican-American, became the highest paid baseball player. The Puerto Ricans Jennifer Lopez and Benicio del Toro gained star status by playing Latino characters but are not limited to ethnic roles.

Yet while the road to the mainstream is more well traveled, roadblocks remain. Two years ago, the surge of Spanish-surnamed pop singers who topped the English-language charts was labeled the "Latin explosion" in the press. Yet the New York-born Marc Anthony, the world's top-selling salsa artist, was one who resented the ethnic label. His recent English-language album is a clear attempt to enter the more profitable mainstream pop market. "They say we're `crossing over,' " he said in 1999. "But I'm just as American as the next guy. Crossing over from what?"

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