“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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But 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 José 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.
“We did some research, and I am the first Latino immigrant on the City Council,” says Huizar, who was born in Zacatecas. “It encapsulates the growing Latino population in L.A. that someone like me” — his eyes flutter a bit — “can come to this country, and because of the educational opportunities, represent the community. It’s huge.”
It’s also “huge,” he says, that he sits on the Princeton Board of Trustees, the first and only Latino to do so. He frequently points this out. He also admits that many of his achievements in L.A. politics have been due to his close relationship with Mayor Villaraigosa. Then, without being asked about the topic, Huizar brings up the possibility that he could one day succeed his mentor. “People say, ‘Oh you want to be mayor,’ but I’m happy doing what I do now. I’m very happy being a City Council member,” Huizar insists. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid. I used to ask myself, why can’t Boyle Heights have the parks, all the infrastructure. Now I can do something about that.”
The whole time, Huizar is fiddling with his cell phone, tearing up a napkin, looking down. Even he seems to hardly believe himself.
In their self-mythologizing, in their unabiding sense of entitlement and, as we’ve seen in Villaraigosa’s leadership style at City Hall, in their intolerance for dissent, MAPs in politics offer a stark lesson. It doesn’t matter what ethnic group politicians belong to, they’re still politicians, working, however nobly, in an inherently corrupt infrastructure built on media manipulation, corporate and private servitude, and the cracklike addiction to power and self-preservation. In Los Angeles, all that has changed are the surnames, the skin color and a few details in the story line. Carnitas instead of cannoli.
Looking for a reason to keep the faith, I decide to look for MAPs outside of politics. After all, they are everywhere these days — on our movie screens and our favorite teams, in boardrooms, cop cars, fire trucks and Humvee convoys. They even sell us real estate.
On a tip, I hear about Juan Jose “J.J.” Lopez of Realty Masters in Montebello, and call him up to ask for an interview.
“I’d be more than interested in telling you my feel-good story,” Lopez says when I tell him I want to meet him. “As long as it’s not an article to try to get me to buy a subscription.”
Realty Masters is a two-story stucco building on a hill overlooking the 60 freeway. Lopez greets me in his long executive office. He’s tall and handsome. He wears a nice watch, and his shoes are spotless. A MAP, no doubt.
“I was brought to this country at the age of 6 and raised in East L.A.,” Lopez says almost right away.
He was born in Jalisco and raised in a two-bedroom, one-bath house near the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A., the youngest of 11 siblings. That’s 13 people in a two-bedroom house. “It was not fun waiting for the restroom,” Lopez recalls.
His mother taught him “every time you make a dollar, put half of it away,” a habit that came in handy when Lopez, at age 18, bought his first home, “a hole in the wall” in East L.A. With a $5,000 down payment from his many part-time jobs, Lopez joined the ranks of homeowners right out of high school. Within three years, that $25,000 house sold for $85,000.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is it.’”
Lopez enrolled at Cal State L.A. but never completed a degree. He didn’t have to. In a short time, after being told at a few franchise realty offices that he “didn’t fit the mold” to be an agent (code, he says, for “You’re too Mexican”), J.J. Lopez decided to become his own mogul. He founded Realty Masters in 1996. For six of the last 10 years, his has been the top-selling office among members of the Montebello Board of Realtors. Lopez now runs a staff of 63 associates, an especially noteworthy accomplishment for a nonfranchise operation.
Now Lopez, 42, never has to wait for the bathroom. He owns his own eight-bedroom, 10-bath house in Hacienda Heights.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you need so many bathrooms?’ Because I come from a two-bedroom, one-bath house. My goal,” Lopez says, “was to have as many bathrooms as I wanted.”
How did he do it? Like all other Mexican American Princes who achieve such things. By working hard, setting goals and listening to his mother. Even with a mansion in Hacienda Heights, Lopez hasn’t forgotten the secret brew cooked in cramped Mexican-American homes up and down California. He’s raising two daughters bilingually because a bilingual person, he insists, “makes more money than a single-language individual.”
Thinking beyond his family, he’s also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for loosened regulations for first-time, immigrant home buyers.
“No matter where you go,” Lopez says, “you have to remember where you came from.”
Listening, I’m beginning to really believe. Really.
“I’m very much excited for the future. California is all minorities now,” Lopez continues. “Latinos, now that Mr. Villaraigosa is in control of the city, we really are in control of the future, I feel. That’s why those in leadership, those who can be mentors, should take that and run with it, and help out the community.”
I’m seduced again. If J.J. Lopez can do it, why can’t others? Why not every young Mexican kid out there. Heck, all Latinos, too, never mind all those mean intra-Latino biases. Everyone! Just listen to your mother, comb your hair and get good grades.
As I get up to leave Realty Masters, Lopez adds, pointing to the carpet beneath us, “This building. I own this building.”
And I’m wondering to myself, when do I get to vote for him?