ROOSTERS DIDN’T GRAZE in the background as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered his español response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, but they might as well have. Hizzoner’s speech wasn’t history so much as it was an Olvera Street sideshow, what Mexicans refer to as a desmadre — a fuckup.

Latinos wanted a vision; he offered clichés. We yearned for a spokesman; we saw an Edward James Olmos clone.

Democrats spun their third annual Spanish-language donkey show as historic, an acknowledgment that the party sees the unassimilated masses as Americans, too. And who better to relay that message than their Golden Niño, the man who ended 133 years of gabacho rule over Los Angeles last year?

But the gesture flopped almost immediately. He delivered his retort a couple of minutes after Bush completed his speech — before the official Democratic response. It smacked of affirmative action, and undoubtedly solidified for conservatives their belief that Latinos demand special treatment. More crucially, having Villaraigosa on first ensured that no Latino would stick around for Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine’s smarmy response — indeed, the local Spanish-language stations didn’t even bother to air it.

Villaraigosa predictably donned a rhetorical sombrero to distinguish himself. It was painful to hear him revert to stories that Italian ward bosses probably tearfully cited a century ago to a different set of swarthy voters. “Where else could someone like me — the son and grandson of immigrants — get a second chance in life and go on to become the mayor of the second largest city of the greatest nation in the world?” he proudly announced just seconds into his speech. Villaraigosa returned to this hackneyed gold mine a short while later by mentioning the sacrifices of his late mother, Natalia, a woman with an espíritu fuerte. (Hey, Tony: Why did you translate it for the English-language press as “indomitable spirit” instead of “strong spirit,” as Mexicans understood it?) At this point, he dropped the formal Spanish and aspired each word with strained exaggeration. “She taught us about working hard,” he sighed deeply. “About the obligation we all have to create a better life for our kids. And about a set of values that says that there is nothing — nothing in the world — as important as family.”

¡Ay, Diós mío! The next Latino politician who blathers about familia or a saintly mother gets a slot on The George Lopez Show.

Villaraigosa did a fine job of further erasing the firebrand Chicano activist we know and miss. He de-emphasized his Eastlos linguistic roots for a national Latino audience — no singsong accent, no Spanglish, no gratuitous use of “you know?” Many of his points — our nation’s shocking dearth of health care (lacked by “39 percent of Latinos, many of whom work full time at the hardest jobs,” he solemnly noted), the need to end our Iraq adventure — were well taken, but any third-tier Democrat could’ve spouted the same stats. He displayed no righteous anger, no bold counterproposal, staged no intellectual sit-ins. And can someone explain his newfound elision of words that end with the letter “r”? He sounded like a Bostonian by way of Roosevelt High.

Villaraigosa could’ve saved his appearance when he addressed immigration, the issue that most affects his audience and is becoming the most divisive national topic since abortion. Bush devoted maybe a minute to immigration, and only to say he opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants and to disagree with those who think “immigrants are somehow bad.”

But the mayor could only mutter that “Democrats want comprehensive immigration reform that respects our neighbors, makes America safer and stronger, and that gives hard-working people who play by the rules a greater opportunity to realize the American Dream.” No attack on Bush’s plan to re-introduce the Sisyphean guest-worker program. No mention of amnesty for millions. No huevos. Like Bush, Villaraigosa was a pinche coward on the subject, a flapping set of lips that enraged most, pleased few and did nothing to offer a solution to the desert of tears that is the United States–Mexico border.

The ultimate gaffe, however, wasn’t Villaraigosa’s fault. After the mayor’s speech, KMEX-TV Channel 34 and KVEA-TV Channel 52 (the two main Spanish-language stations in Southern California) failed to air the Democratic response and switched to regular programming — this after Villaraigosa pleaded with listeners, “We need your voices and your vision. And, above all, we need your participation.” The Democrats full well know they need Latino power to win elections, but the networks are smarter. Sure, Latinos might benefit from a real role in the American political process, but they’ll ditch their self-appointed savior in favor of the latest spicy telenovela any day. Especially when all he offers is stock-character tripe.

Gustavo Arellano will be the guest host of the Pocho Hour of Power Friday at 4 p.m. on KPFK.

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