In a historic landslide victory on May 19, Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles. He became the first Latino mayor of the nation’s second biggest city since 1872. Mayor-elect Villaraigosa needed black support to win in this city where Latinos make up around 46 percent of the population (but only 20-25 percent of the electorate). According to James Jones, a retired electrical engineer who lives in west Los Angeles, Villaraigosa is a good guy, a plain-spoken, unabashed liberal and blunt, with a track record as a coalition-builder between African Americans and Latinos.
Does this election offer a glimpse of the future make-up of Chicago and the rest of America’s political landscape?
Nicolas C. Vaca, in his book, The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks (2004), states, “Many African Americans now view Latinos, because of their growing numbers, as a threat to their social, economic, and political gains.” He goes on to say, “Conversely, Latinos do not view African Americans as an oppressed group in the same way other Americans do, and this often has negative results.”
I agree. Tensions between Latinos and blacks have always lurked dangerously close to the surface. These tensions have been fueled by the changing ethnic realities in Los Angeles, Chicago and the rest of America in the past decade.
Although race remains a prominent civil rights issue today, the “rights” movement has branched out to include women, the disabled, homosexuals, the elderly and virtually every other ethnic minority. All have advanced.
The new directions the civil rights movement has taken over the past several decades owe their progress, however, to the 200-year struggle of African Americans for civil rights and human rights. It paved the way politically for these new efforts, both in honing the techniques of demonstrations and protest and in creating a receptive audience in the news media and American public opinion.
But most important, the black movement built a foundation of federal laws, judicial precedents, and administrative regulations that could be easily extended to other groups. In many respects, Latinos have successfully enlisted the laws and administrative and judicial structures put in place to protect African Americans. Yet their civil rights concerns are distinctive, mainly associated with language and citizenship. Recognizing these facts, congress passed the 1970 extension of the Voting Rights Act, requiring that ballots also be available in Spanish.
Through massive immigration and higher birth rates, the Latino population has soared. Latinos have displaced blacks as the largest non-white minority in America. It’s not just the numbers. Like blacks, many Latinos have prospered in the professions and in business, especially here in Chicago, and have deepened their influence, particularly within the Republican Party. Latinos demand that political and social issues no longer be framed solely in black and white.
The agenda of African Americans and Latinos diverge on four major issues: immigration, political representation, jobs and bi-lingual education.
Many Latino immigrants have been displaced from their land, have little or zero education, and few job prospects in their native countries. They are “economic refugees.” Survival, not assimilation, is their priority. They practice what they preach. They fiercely guard their customs, traditions, religion and language. Many, by choice, live in tight-knit barrios to better preserve family ties and language. They send money home to Mexico or El Salvador and return often to visit. Their faces are turned as much to their native countries as America.
Many Latinos work at low-pay jobs that offer no health, union or retirement benefits. To many, these jobs represent a marked improvement from the life they left. Many employers take advantages of their economic plight and hire them to work the dirtiest and most hazardous jobs in plants, factories and farms. Previously, unskilled or semi-skilled black workers held these jobs, along with a few whites, though no type of job is as hazardous as “picking cotton.”
The increased immigration has come at the worst possible time for poor African-American communities, which are reeling from a decade of job and social service cuts. Immigrant labor competition could further marginalize the black poor by raising joblessness, decreasing benefits, and exacerbating the crime and drug crisis.
Finally, government cutbacks in job and social programs (150 programs for poor folks) have wreaked havoc on the black and Latino poor. Both have a vital interest in the fight for low-cost housing, quality education, better health care, efficient city services and police protection. In some neighborhoods, community groups have tenuously bridged the culture and language gap and have joined forces to protest crime, school and housing deterioration.
The hard truth, though, is that blacks and Latinos are undergoing a painful period of adjustment in Los Angeles, Chicago and America. They will find the struggle for unity will be long and difficult. Villaraigosa’s victory is a good sign that black and Latino unity could be more than a presumption if only the sometimes strained relationship can be addressed.