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“Youngsters got to learn, got to recognize, that the cold heart of Hispanic ambition can leave your soul as dry as the Owens Valley.”
—Norte/Sur, in the play Water & Power
On March 13, with the firing squad of the Washington press corps standing before him, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales opened a practically suicidal news conference by invoking his “core principles” as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer: independence, accountability and, in his case, “obstacles.”
“Let me just say one thing,” Gonzales said, visibly shaken by the furor over the politically motivated dismissals of eight of his deputy attorneys. “I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general. I am here not because I give up.”
That’s about when I felt a sudden urge to slap my forehead with the nearest hardback. Not out of disbelief, but out of shame.
Let me explain. Gonzales is from Texas, the grandson of Mexican immigrants. He attended public schools in Houston, then spent two years in the Air Force before heading off to Rice University and Harvard Law School. Later, he served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and, once his friend George W. Bush reached the White House, as counsel to the president. In 2005, after the resignation of John Ashcroft, Bush named Gonzales attorney general, the first Latino and first Mexican-American in the post. Were it not for the company he keeps and his utter disdain for habeas corpus, Gonzales should make me feel proud because he’s Mexican like me. At least, that’s how the thinking goes.
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Are You a Map? Top 10 signs you are a budding Mexican American PrinceBut when Gonzales referred to “obstacles in my life” in that press conference, it was pretty clear to me what he was doing. He was playing to the latent liberal guilt lurking inside everyone in that room. He was reminding them all that he was an accomplished Mexican-American, an ascendant, shiny brown thing, and therefore, he hoped they’d see, essentially good.
That curious leap in thinking, and how it was abused, is what made me cringe.Yet part of me understood that he was also feeling the weight of being a Mexican-American trailblazer, an up-by-his-bootstraps minority success. The Washington reporters weren’t going to write stories saying that he might have abused his power because of his ethnicity, but it was clear that he felt some internal pressure to defend not only himself but other ambitious Mexican-Americans. No one would expect such self-inflicted distress from Scooter Libby.
You’d think I’d be used to it by now, though. Where we live, there are dozens like Alberto Gonzales getting elected and appointed to the highest and most influential political offices. These guys are mostly new-labor Democrats — you won’t find many Republican tejanos in Los Angeles —but with the staggering demographic shifts our state has seen in the last 20 years, you can bet more are on the way. Republican or Democrat, their backstories are almost exactly alike. In fact, their tales of obstacles overcome are part of the secret behind their success. From Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Congressman Xavier Becerra, they are a fascinating new breed of political and cultural icon, and their influence is expanding as California’s does. They’re living large and they’re in charge. I call them the Mexican American Princes.
Solache raises a distressing question. After generations of mostly white leaders, are we to expect anything different from MAP politicians than the guys who came before them? What makes them automatically worth our adulation, beyond the sexy Spanish surnames? Veteran political consultant James Acevedo says not much else.
“There were days when I used to say, ‘It’s us versus the greater society.’ Today it’s Latinos running against Latinos. Now it isn’t as much about ethnicity as what you stand for,” says Acevedo. “I think people are finding our politics are just as mainstream as anyone else’s.”
And yet, says L.A. City Councilman JosÃ© Huizar, things have progressed so smoothly that Latino politicians and voters can get complacent about bigotry toward Mexicans in elections or in daily life.
“I think that we’re far from achieving the type of power we think we have,” Huizar insists. “It’s like, ‘Si se puede, y ya lo hicimos’ (Yes we can, we already did it). But we haven’t even gotten there.”
I’m sitting with Huizar at another Starbucks, this one on the ground floor of the New Otani Hotel in Little Tokyo, near City Hall. Huizar is the most recent Mexican American Prince to reign in Council District 14, following Mayor Villaraigosa. He was born and raised in Boyle Heights and has returned to live there as an adult. He got his planning degree at Princeton, his law degree at UCLA, and his undergraduate degree at Berkeley, where he was active in student government.