Eric Garcetti has what you could describe as a white guy's face and an Italian's name.
But, in the race to become the next mayor of Los Angeles, the city councilman could use all the ethnic bloodlines he can get. It's a diverse town where political winners often have to piece together disparate coalitions. And so Garcetti is playing up his Latino and Jewish ancestry.
Los Angeles is roughly half Latino, and Antonio Villaraigosa rode his own Mexican American background to a win as the first Latino mayor in Los Angeles in the modern era. Garcetti would like to make that two in a row:
But what are Garcetti's claims to Mexican heritage? They're similar to those of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but not as reluctant or last-minute.
As you'll recall, Romney's father was born in Mexico, but the candidate never seemed to acknowledge it until asking for the Latino vote in Florida recently.
While Garceitti's lineage is similarly Euro-Mexican, the same can't be said for him:
He told us back in 2007, when we were writing for Ciudad magazine, that “when it's time to be counted, I very much want to be counted as a Latino.”
His paternal grandparents were born in Mexico and came to Boyle Heights in reaction to the Mexican Revolution. His great-grandfather was an Italian who settled in Mexico to mine silver in the state of Chihuahua.
The typical Mexican is “mestizo,” a mix of Indian and Spanish. While Romney's linage doesn't appear to include any indigenous or Spanish blood, a spokesman for Garcetti tells us his does.
But Maria-Elena Martinez, associate professor of history and ethnicity at USC, tells the Weekly that it doesn't matter anyway.
“Mexican” is not a race or an ethnicity, but rather a melting pot of a nationality, she says.
(That's often lost on us here in L.A., which has a long and deep history of viewing Mexicans as a dark-skinned service class. In fact, there was a time when Mexican was a bad word and it was uttered in hushed tones. Some people of Mexican descent called themselves “Spanish.” Some still do. The fact that someone like Mitt Romney is cool with it says volumes about the evolution of Latinos in America).
'Mexican' encompasses a lot of people. If his family migrated from Europe to become miners and became Mexicans or because of a generation being born there, by all means they are Mexican. Of course he can claim that he has a Mexican past — that he has Mexican ancestors.
Even if none of them were, as in Romney's case, “brown?”
We have to be careful about assuming a nationality is a race. Mexico tends to be a relatively open society in part because officially and historically there has been a recognition of people of mixed ancestries. As opposed to here where we've had more of a racial binary of black and white.
The professor continues:
I don't want to create the impression that Latin America as a whole is a racial paradise. It isn't. But race works somewhat differently there for complicated reasons: The influx of people from so many different places and a greater incorporation or acceptance of people who were not classified as purely white or indigenous into communities that in the long run produce more openness to racial 'others.'
In L.A. people seem to scoff at the notion of a “Mexican” as “white” as Loteria restaurant owner Jimmy Shaw, but growing up in San Diego we were exposed to the Chinese and Jewish Mexicans of Tijuana.
In fact, many a born-in-Mexico Mexican would proclaim Shaw, from Mexico City, much more Mexican than an American-born half-Mexican, like this author, whose father is dark, beak-nosed and indigenous-looking.
The Los Angeles Times on Monday called Garcetti ” … the only high-profile candidate of Latino descent” and noted that he referred to himself as “Chicano” while speaking at a memorial for late Times staff writer George Ramos.
Chicano is a loaded term, definitely affiliated with indigenous dreams and the lore of an Aztec people that once ruled the Southwest United States. But it's an American term adopted by — again — people much less “Mexican” (U.S.-born college students) than the likes of Romney's south-of-the-border ancestors, at least technically.
“Politicians will obviously emphasize ancestry depending on how much political mileage they can get out of it,” Martinez says. “But 'Mexican' encompasses a lot of people.”
We'll certainly let Garcetti have his Latino claims — who are we not to? — but we hope, if he makes it to the mayor's office, that he lives up to them.