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The Ambivalent Minority: Mexican Americans and the Voting Rights Act

  • Peter Skerry (a1)


In the countless conversations about U.S. immigration policy that I have had with Mexican Americans of varied backgrounds and political orientations, seldom have my interlocutors failed to remind me that “We were here first,” or that “This was our land and you stole it from us.” Even a moderate Mexican American politician like former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros sounds the same theme in a national news magazine:

It is no accident that these regions have the names they do—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, Montana.…It is a rich history that Americans have been led to believe is an immigrant story when, in fact, the people who built this area in the first place were Hispanics.



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This essay is excerpted from Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority (The Free Press, 1993).

1. The same sentiment was found in the 1960s by Grebler, Leo et al. , The Mexican-American People: The Nation's Second Largest Minority (New York, 1970), 545.

2. Mackenzie, Richard, ‘U.S. Culture with a Spanish Accent,’ Insight, 16 December 1985, 14.

3. Janowitz, Morris, The Reconstruction of Patriotism: Education for Civic Consciousness (Chicago, 1983), 129, 137.

4. Munoz, Carlos Jr., and Barrera, Mario, ‘La Raza Unida Party and the Chicano Student Movement in California,’ Social Science Journal 19 (1982): 111; Connor, Walker, ‘Who Are the Mexican-Americans? A Note on Comparability,’ in Connor, Walker, ed., Mexican-Americans in Comparative Perspective (Washington, D.C., 1985), 1618.

5. The distinction I draw here parallels that made by Ogbu, John U., ‘Minority Status and Literacy in Comparative Perspective,’ Daedalus 119 (1980): 145–46, 150. I am indebted to Paul Peterson for bringing this article to my attention.

6. See Martin, Ben L., ‘From Negro to Black to African American,’ Political Science Quarterly 6 (1991): 83107.

7. Bean, Frank D. and Tienda, Marta, The Hispanic Population of The United States (New York, 1987), 107.

8. Bean and Tienda, The Hispanic Population, 107–9.

9. Murguia, Edward, Chicano Intermarriage: A Theoretical and Empirical Study (San Antonio, Tex., 1982), 4041, 48–49.

10. See Massey, Douglas S. and Denton, Nancy A., ‘Trends in the Residential Segregation of Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians: 1970–1980,’ American Sociological Review 52 (1987): 802–25. Also Moore, Joan and Pachon, Harry, Hispanics in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1985), 60.

11. Of the remainder, 1.2 percent of Mexican Americans said they were ‘black’ and 46.7 percent ‘other race.’ Confirming these data are the findings of the Latino National Political Survey. Conducted around the same time as the 1990 census, the Survey reports that 51 percent of Mexican Americans identify themselves as racially ‘white.’ See de la Garza, Rodolfo O. et al. , ‘Will the Real American Press Stand Up: A Comparison of Political Values Among Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Anglos in the United States,’paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association(1991),16.

12. Quoted in Ravitch, Diane, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (New York, 1983), 271.

13. Graubard, Stephen R., “Preface,’ Daedalus 110 (1981): vii.

14. I quote here from an advertising circular. For the actual publication, see Harvard Educational Review 58 (1988): 265432.

15. See, for example, Barrera, Mario, Race and Class in the Southwest: A Theory of Racial Inequality (Notre Dame, Ind., 1979); or Montejano, David, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin, Tex., 1987), passim and especially 261.

16. de la Garza, Rodolfo O., Public Policy Priorities of Chicano Political Elites, working Paper, U.S.-Mexico Project Series, No. 7 (Washington, D.C.: Overseas Development Council, July 1982), 22.

17. Thernstrom, Abigail M., Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 4362.

18. On the Voting Rights Act and its extension to Mexican Americans, see Thernstrom, Whose Votes Count?, 43–62. For evidence that the discrimination experience by Mexicans even in as extreme a context as Texas was less intense than what blacks endured, see Greber et al., The Mexican American People, 389–90. See also Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, though my inferences from Montejano's data differ from his own.

19. O'Connor, Karen and Epstein, Lee, ‘A Legal Voice for the Chicano Community: The Activities of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Frund, 1968–1982,’ Social Science Quarterly 65 (1984): 248.

20. Ibid., 253.

21. For an analysis of the structure and incentives of the NAACP and its spinoff, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, see Wilson, James Q., Political Organisations (New York, 1973), 171–81, 321. See also Handler, Joel F. et al. , ‘Public Interest Law and Employment Discrimination,’ in Weisbrod, Burton A. et al. , Public Interest Law: An Economic and Institutional Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978), 272–73. On MALDEF specifically, see ibid., 273–74.

22. Data compiled from MALDEF and Ford Foundation annual reports.

23. Facundo, Blanca, Responsiveness of U.S. Foundations to Hispanic Needs and Concerns: Results of a Survey on Institutional Policies and Procedures Relevant to Hispanics and an Analysis of Grant Information in the 1977 and 1978 ‘Foundation Grants Index’ (Reston, Va., Latino Research Institute Division, 1980), 2224. See also A Study of Foundation Awards to Hispanic-Oriented Organizations in the U.S.: 1981–1982, preliminary report (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Center for Chicano Research, Stanford University, March 1984), 1617.

24. See, for example, Delaney, Paul, ‘A Purge at the Top, Confusion In the Ranks: N.A.A.C.P. Crisis,’ New York Times, 29 March 1992, sec. 4, 2.

25. See Berry, Jeffrey M., The Interest Group Society, 2d ed. (Glenview, Ill., 1989), 6263; and Wilson, James Q., American Government: Institutions and Policies (Lexington, Mass., 1980), 215–18.

26. Wilson, James Q., ed., The Politics of Regulation (New York, 1980), 370–72. Wilson's discussion of vicarious representation is of course part of his broader analysis of ‘entrepreneurial politics,’ which he differentiates from ‘majoritarian,’ ‘client,’ and ‘interest group’ politics. It is an intriguing—and not readily answered—question as to whether the political dynamics I ascribe to MALDEF are best categorized as entrepreneurial or client politics. See ibid., 367–70.

27. Mathews, Jay, Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (New York, 1988), 172–73.

28. Janowitz, Morris, The Lost Half-Century: Societal Change and Politics in America (Chicago, 1978), 303.

29. Ibid., 27–52, 302.

30. Ibid., 302.

31. Ibid., 301–12.

32. Hamilton, Charles V., ‘Blacks and the Crisis of Political Participation,’ Public Interest 34 (1974): 191. Stuart Scheingold makes a similar critique of public-interest law strategies, but from a much more markedly leftist perspective. See Scheingold, Stuart A., The Politics of Rights: Lawyers, Public Policy, and Political Change (New Haven, 1974).

33. For a similar argument on how the media greatly oversimplied the complex issues involved in the 1981–82 debates over renewal of the Voting Rights Act, see Thernstrom, Whose Votes Count?, 117–20.

34. ‘Ending the Political Shame of L.A.,’ Los Angeles Times, 6 June 1990, B6.

35. Garzav. County of Los Angeles, 756 F. Supp. 1298, 1339–42 (CD. Cal. 1990).

36. Garza v. County of Los Angeles, 918 F.2d 763, 778 (9th Cir. 1990) (Kozinski, C.J., concurring and dissenting in part).

37. 756 F. Supp. 1298, at 1304.

38. Ibid.

39. For the election results, see County of Los Angeles, et al. v. Yoland Garza, et al., ‘Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,’ Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1990; 30 November 1990, 4. For an assessment of Sarah Flores's prospects in what would have been the runoff for the supervisorial seat, see Bill Boyarsky, ‘The Rocky Race of Sarah Flores,’ Los Angeles Times, Nuestro Tiempo section, 11 October 1990, 1, 7.

40. Simon, Richard, ‘Light Voter Turnout in 1st District Race,’ Los Angeles Times, 23 January 1991, A20.

41. Boyarsky, Bill, ‘In 30 Years, History Comes Full Circle from Roybal to Molina,’ Los Angeles Times, 23 February 1991, B2.

42. Kousser, J. Morgan, How to Determine Intent: Lessons from L.A., Social Science Working Paper 741 (Pasadena: Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, June 1990), 12.

43. Garza v. County of Los Angeles, ‘Appellants' Opening Brief on Appeal,’ U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 8–9.

44. I deduce this from the fact that 53 percent of Los Angeles Hispanics told the 1980 census they were citizens. Because we know that these self-reported census data on citizenship are artificially high, it is then entirely possible that less than this 53 percent figure—less than a majority of Los Angeles Hispanics—were citizens in 1980. See Garza v. County of Los Angeles, ‘Appellants' Opening Brief on Appeal,’ U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 9.

45. Derived from the data presented in United States of America v. County of Los Angeles, ‘Declaration of Dr. William P. O'Hare,’ U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, 26 October 1989, 10.

46. ‘An Election to Make History,’ Los Angeles Times, 19 February 1991, B6.

47. Figures derived from data presented in United States of America v. County of Los Angeles, ‘Declaration of Dr. William P. O'Hare,’ 8, 12, 14.

48. 756 F. Supp. 1298 at 1318–19.

49. For the Chicano activists' strategy in 1981, see Nancy D. Kates, New Kingdoms for the Five Kings: Discriminatory Redistricting and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Case Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1991 (draft), 7–8. See also Kousser, How to Determine Intent, 32–41; and 756 F. Supp 1298 at 1315.

50. 918 F.2d 763 at 769; and Garza v. County of Los Angeles, ‘Appellants' Opening Brief on Appeal,’ 14.

51. Simon, Richard and Tobar, Hector, ‘Deadline for 1st District Race Passes with No Surprises,’ Los Angeles Times, 1 December 1990, B3.

52. On the strategic choices facing MALDEF in 1981, see Kates, New Kingdoms for the Five Kings, 11. For an account, from the activists' perspective, of the events leading up to the MALDEF suit, see Uranga, Steve and Diaz, Marshall, ‘For Latinos, a Representative Case,’ Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1988, II–7.

53. This sequence of events is borne out in newspaper accounts of the negotiations culminating in the suit. See Merina, Victor and Ostrow, Ron, ‘U.S. Accuses County of Reapportionment Bias,’ Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1988, 1, 34; Merina, Victor, ‘U.S. Vows Suit If Supervisors Don't Revamp to Aid Latinos,’ Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1988, 1, 4; Merina, Victor, ‘Latinos Sue, Charge Bias in Districting by Supervisors,’ Los Angeles Times, 24 August 1988, II–1, II–8; and Merina, Victor and Ostrow, Ronald J., ‘U.S. Sues to Get New Supervisor Districts Drawn,’ Los Angeles Times, 9 September 1988, 1, 28. In the latter article, a senior Justice Department official complained that voting-rights-division attorneys were caught by surprise ‘when MALDEF rushed in and filed suit. They picked up all the work we had done and then threw a hand grenade.’

54. Cannon, Lou, ‘Hispanic Elected in L.A. County,’ Washington Post, 21 February 1991, A5.

55. For more on this point, see Skerry, Peter, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority (New York, 1993), 7480, 86–90, 175–249.

56. This turnout figure is from the Los Angeles County Office of Public Information. Similarly low turnout figures for a variety of Latino (and black) constituencies in Los Angeles are presented in one of the more thoughtful articles on the 1992 Los Angeles riots. See Rutten, Tim, ‘A New Kind of Riot,’ New York Review of Books, 11 June 1992, 54.

57. 918 F.2d 763 at 779–80 (Kozinski, C. J., concurring and dissenting in part).

58. Ibid., 781–85.

59. See especially, McCarthy, Kevin F. and Valdez, R. Burciaga, Current and Future Effects of Mexican Immigration in California (Los Angeles, 1986), 3745, 74–75, but also Muller, Thomas et al. , The Fourth Wave: California's Newest Immigrants (Washington, D.C., 1985), 114–17.

60. de la Garza, Rodolfo O., ‘Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and Immigration Reform,’ in Glazer, Nathan, ed., Clamor at the Gates: The New American Immigration (San Francisco, 1985), 98.

61. Quoted in Briggs, Vernon M. et al. , The Chicano Worker (Austin, Tex., 1977), 93. For more on Sanchez's views on immigration and related issues, see Garcia, Mario T., Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960 (New Haven, 1989), 252–72.

62. On the divisions among Mexican Americans with regard to immigration during the 1960s, see Grebler et al., The Mexican-American People, 383.

63. de la Garza, Rodolfo et al. , Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics (Boulder, Colo., 1992), 101, 178, 215.

64. For a contrasting, but not very persuasive, view, see de la Garza, ‘Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and Immigration Reform,’ in Glazer, ed., Clamor at the Gates, 102.

65. For an elaboration of this point, see Edsall, Thomas Byrne, The New Politics of Inequality (New York, 1984).

66. For a critique of this strategy, see Chavez, Linda, ‘Party Lines: The Republicans' Racial Quotas,’ The New Republic, 24 June 1991, 1416. See also Thernstrom, Abigail M., ‘A Republican-Civil Rights Conspiracy,’ Washington Post, 23 September 1991, A23.

67. On the decline of black turnout in northern cities generally in the pre-Reagan era, see Erie, Steven P., Rainbow's End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840–1985 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988), 265–66.

68. Hamilton, Charles V., ‘The Patron-Recipient Relationship and Minority Politics in New York City,’ Political Science Quarterly 94 (1979): 214–15.

69. Ibid., 215–16.

70. Kantowicz, Edward T., ‘Voting and Parties,’ in Walzer, Michael et al. , Politics of Ethnicity (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), 46.

71. On television's self-conscious role in the civil rights struggle, see Robinson, Michael J., ‘Television and American Politics: 1956–1976,’ The Public Interest 48 (1977): 2829.

The Ambivalent Minority: Mexican Americans and the Voting Rights Act

  • Peter Skerry (a1)


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