OUT OF THE BARRIO: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. By Linda Chavez. Basic. 208pp. $ 23.
What is Linda Chavez running for? The Supreme Court has no openings, she lost her 1986 bid for the Senate to Barbara Mikulski (who got 62 percent of the
vote) and she has shown little inclination to involve herself in electoral politics since that time. Yet her new book, Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, reads like campaign literature.
Chavez’s most direct intellectual precursor is Richard Rodriguez. His Hunger of Memory.- The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) combines an intellectual autobiography (at the ripe old age of 37) with an impassioned condemnation of bilingual education and affirmative action programs. His meditations on his classical Indian features, his brown skin and the exclusion that he felt because of these are balanced against his fine Catholic-school education. He cannot continue, in good conscience, to benefit from affirmative action programs because, he declares, he is not part of a disadvantaged minority. He uses his experience as a “scholarship boy” to advocate the abolition of educational programs that boost those who are struggling to keep their heads above water. The irony of his conclusion is that most Hispanic youngsters do not have access to a good school. A recent study shows that Hispanic children are increasingly found in segregated schools that receive less funding than those for white children. Rodriguez calls for an educational revolution that will give all children an equal opportunity for advancement; viewed from the perspective of today’s severe budget cuts in education, he seems quixotic.
The appearance of Out of the Barrio is timely. A number of African-American “affirmative action babies” have been publishing their books: Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character see Adolph Reed Jr., “Steele Trap,” March 4, 19911; Stephen Carter, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby see Patricia J. Williams, “Nothing But the Best,” November 18, 1991 ; and in 1987 Clarence Thomas published his essay “Why Black Americans Should Look to Conservative Policies” in a Heritage Foundation pamphlet. What links these writings is the authors’ claims of injury caused by their experiences with affirmative action. Rodriguez shares one notable characteristic with his African-American
counterparts: In seeking to define the terms of the game, he is attempting to control his fate and that of his people. In his eyes, the acceptance of affirmative action by members of minority groups acknowledges the power of white men rather than promoting their own empowerment. Most of the minority public critics of affirmative action and other preferential programs are male, and all have benefited from affirmative action policies. The styles may differ, but the message is the same: Affirmative action is a flawed solution to the ills suffered by people of color in the United States; they would do better to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Chavez’s tract continues the discussion opened by Rodriguez, but while his was an intensely personal account of the disadvantages of affirmative action and bilingual educatio-experiences that might have been less painful if the programs he attacked had been more fully realized-her book is largely impersonal. She argues that the Latino community is being manipulated by liberal activists to believe that its needs are similar to those of AfricanAmericans. She cites statistics chosen in her attempt to prove that contrary to popular opinion, Chicanos are not a disadvantaged minority, and she puts as much space as she can between the black and the Chicano experience.
New Latin American immigrants and the poorest of the U.S.-born Hispanics, the real denizens of the barrio, would find little to identify with in this book. Despite its title, Out of the Barrio aims at the swiftly developing Mexican-American middle class, which has already left the barrio behind. There is a native conservatism in the Hispanic community, born of the historical interpenetration of the Catholic Church with Hispanic culture and the natural conservatism of immigrants, but the opinions and self-serving statistics offered by Chavez lack the resonance with Hispanic culture and the Latino community that would make them vibrant. Never is the reader shown Chavez’s passion for Hispanic culture or her loyalty to the community: I wanted to shake her and say, “We are talking about our people.”
Throughout the book, she minimizes the problems besetting the community, using skewed numbers to prove her arguments. She does not dwell on the large number of Hispanic students who drop out of school; she mentions only in passing the involvement of young Hispanics in gang activity; she minimizes the effect of the increasing segregation of Hispanic students and the consequent drop in funding for those schools. She virtually ignores women, except when discussing Puerto Rican women on welfare, and even fails to mention the small proportion of women from the Latino community who obtain university education, ignoring the fact that a minuscule number have risen as far as she has. Each of the problems hints at the deeper one: Hispanics are still far behind the mainstream in terms of income and education.
Chavez has absolutely no class analysis. She makes the same convenient mistake the government makes in trying to categorize the Latino community, lumping it together as though it were a homogeneous group and ignoring its multiclass, multi-ethnic, even multiracial nature. She fails to acknowledge the vast differences among, for example, the Cuban community, which is largely Republican and conservative; the long-established but poor Puerto Rican community in New York; the multifaceted Mexican communities in California and Texas; and the Salvadoran community, which is primarily composed of recent refugees. In discussing the Cuban community, for example, she dismisses out of hand the view that the success of Cubans can be attributed to their higher level of education. They succeeded because they worked hard, she claims, as if the rest of the Latinos in the U.S. have been snoozing under their sombreros.
If there are any problems in the Hispanic community, Chavez suggests, they are the fault of the community alone. Chavez blames Chicano activists, who she claims are blocking the way to complete assimilation by promoting Latino culture and bilingual education. But in reality, few community activists encourage a refusal to assimilate; instead, they promote the desire to maintain the essence of Latin culture. She almost seems to believe that there is a conspiracy of Hispanic leaders for the purpose of maintaining an identity as a minority community in order to hold on to preferential treatment programs. From this perspective, Chavez concentrates on those Latinos who have made it into the middle class, urging them to leave behind their culture and their values.
Chavez argues that past generations of immigrants were accepted because they agreed to the American contract: to adapt to the language, values and mores of the United States. She warns us that “when Hispanics insist that they do not have to follow the same rules as every group before them, they threaten this contract.” Her prescription is easy: Follow the footsteps of earlier immigrants and assimilate.
But those immigrants entered a different country, one in which it was easier to rise from poverty. According to Michael Genzuk, vice president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, “fully 94 percent of the students at the turn of the century dropped out of school ” Those young people could work with their hands in agrarian or industrial occupations. Now a much smaller dropout rate of 30-35 percent is a major problem because the manual labor market scarcely exists; idle hands result in higher crime rates, drug addiction and homelessness. Besides, becoming an American no longer requires abandoning one’s own culture and language. The melting pot has been exchanged for an ideal of diversity.
More than any other group of immigrants, Latinos can expect deep class, ethnic and racial divisions to persist, because immigration will continue as long as extreme disparities of wealth and political instability continue to exist in Latin America and as long as it remains easy to enter this country illegally and disappear into a large Latino community.
Linda Chavez grew up in a poor neighborhood in Albuquerque, the child of a Mexican-American father who spoke little Spanish and a non-Hispanic mother. After her parents’ divorce she moved with her mother to Denver. However her father’s culture may have affected her privately, Chavez seems hardly to have identified with it: She speaks very little Spanish.
Her government career-she worked first for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, then for the Office of Management and Budget’s Constitutional Civil Rights Section, followed by a two-year stint as the highly visible executive director for the Commission on Civil Rights, and finally, after switching to the Republican Party in 1985, she served several years as the head of President Reagan’s Public Liaison Office-has consisted of a string of appointments by powerful white men who saw the opportunity to use one of the few college-educated Hispanic women as a token. Even the job she took after she left public service, as director of U.S. English, reflected her token status.
Despite her opposition to affirmative action, she seems to have based her entire career on her ethnic identity. From the public record, it is impossible to determine just when Chavez’s interest in her Hispanic roots translated into a desire to influence public policy pertaining to Hispanics. She has carved out a unique position as the Latina token of the Republican Party, assuring the leadership that she represents a solid constituency. Her failed attempts to win public office and the lack of support among Hispanics for the English-only movement, as well as her reputation as the most-hated U.S. Hispanic, belie that claim.
Chavez’s underlying complaint seems to be that anyone who deviates from the “ethnic party line” is considered a heretic. Surely there is nothing in the Constitution that requires a member of a minority group to toe a politically correct line. Nevertheless, the individual with contrary opinions within a minority group necessarily arouses suspicion, particularly if, as in the case of Clarence Thomas or Linda Chavez, those views are meant to alter public policy. Consider that Chavez has made a career of expressing opinions radically at odds with most of the leadership of the Latino community in the United States; that she bases her credibility on her ethnic background; and that her ideas, if taken seriously, could adversely affect the lives of millions of Latinos whose feet are firmly grounded in the rich loam of their culture. Who stands to gain from a wide acceptance of her policies? It certainly isn’t the Latino community.
Rosemarie Pegueros is a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at U.C.L.A.