The office of U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard is an impressive illustration of Latino ascendancy.

Copies of Hispanic Business magazine sit in the rack; a banner from Becerra’s alma mater, Stanford University, hangs on the wall; a new computer has just been delivered.

Asked to define “Latino issues,” Becerra replies that they are much the same as everybody else’s – things like jobs, schools and health care – but usually with an extra twist.

For instance, whereas most other American voters are fuming about their Health Maintenance Organizations, Latinos are more worried about getting access to an HMO in the first place.

At the other end of the country, Florida, another young Democrat, Alex Penelas, who is Cuban-American, delivers broadly the same message. “I am a bridge builder,” says the Miami-Dade County mayor, who is now hammering away at issues such as corruption.

Penelas’s mother was a hotel maid, his father a farm worker; he himself is sometimes mentioned as a possible running mate for Al Gore.

It is easy to pick holes in these two Latinos’ show of modernity. In Miami, Penelas dutifully inveighs against Fidel Castro. But playing the occasional ethnic card is hardly an exclusive Latino preserve (listen to any Kennedy on Ireland).

In New York, it is not only Latinos, but also Dominicans, Jamaicans and even Russians who are beginning to flex their political muscles.

In California, Korean churches have been among the steeliest supporters of conservative causes such as restricting gay rights.

Despite its large Latino community, Los Angeles is still essentially run by Jews and Blacks. Of the city’s 15 council members, only three are Latinos.

In the forthcoming mayoral election, Latinos may cast only 20 percent of the votes, even though they make up 45 percent of the electorate. It will probably take another election for a Latino mayor to emerge.

In national politics, Latinos make up only around 7 percent of the likely voters, half the figure for Blacks, but they may punch above their weight in the election later this year.

Of America’s elected Latinos, some 90 percent are Democrats. But there are differences. Cubans in Miami and Mexican-Americans in Texas tend to be much more conservative than, say, Puerto Ricans in New York and Mexican-Americans in California.

If Latinos are mainly in the Democratic camp, it is largely thanks to a Republican. “Wherever I speak, I can rally support just by mentioning Pete Wilson,” says Becerra.

While governor of California, Wilson infuriated Latinos by sponsoring Proposition 187, which cut off benefits to illegal immigrants. Since 1994, 600,000 Latinos have registered to vote in California, most of them as Democrats.

What will Latinos do as and when they gain power? Privately, almost all of them pledge “not to do another Miami.” This is a veiled hint at Miami’s pervasive corruption, but also reflects a genuine belief that Miami is too separate from the rest of America.

Outside Miami, Latino politicians have been much less proprietary about their fiefs, and Latino voters seem much more inclined than Blacks to vote for politicians of any hue.

Yet it would be odd if Latinos did not put their stamp on national politics. A more conservative attitude toward abortion and stronger ties with Latin America are sometimes mentioned.

It is conceivable that the new Americans’ biggest impact on politics will be among Whites. Ron Unz, the man who ended bilingual education, points out that White voters in California have begun to assume the political habits of a minority.

California’s previous generosity to immigrants was rooted in White voters’ self-confidence, he says; now that their numbers are declining, they are developing the same protective instincts as any minority group. They are attacking affirmative action and immigrant benefits, and are preparing a new version of Proposition 187.

On the national stage, the only candidate who voices such concerns is Pat Buchanan, now of the Reform Party, who says he wants to reduce the number of immigrants to 250,000 a year.

In West Los Angeles, you hear complaints about changing neighborhoods; you also see children of all races playing together.

The odds are still on the side of the melting pot.

Next: Nora, Maria and the American dream.

Seventh in an eight-part series. John Micklethwait writes for the Economist magazine.



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