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Friday, May 1, 1992

Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation

Linda Chavez has earned a reputation as an opponent of Hispanic policy-oriented groups that equate civil rights with government entitlements of one kind or another. Her stand against bilingual education, for example, hardly endears her to pro-entitlement groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). And now, with Out of the Barrio, Chavez promises to be even more of an irritant to the spin-masters of the Hispanic political status quo.

This book concentrates on raising issues—not always debating them—in brief polemics, each no more than a few pages long. Along with salvos at the standard issues defended by Hispanic policy groups, Chavez puts forth a pro-assimilation thesis that native-born Hispanics of almost every cultural and national origin are following the path of assimilation cleared by ethnic Europeans, even if current Hispanic politics run ideologically counter to this trend.

And throughout, as well, there is her belief in the self that confronts the politics of self-pity.

“A careful examination of the voluminous data on the Hispanic population gathered by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies shows that, as a group, Hispanics have made progress in this society and that most have moved into the social and economic mainstream,” she writes. “In most respects, Hispanics—particularly those born here—are very much like other Americans: they work hard, support their own families without outside assistance, have more education and higher earnings than their parents, and own their own homes. In short, they are pursuing the American Dream—with increasing success.”

Chavez’s research bears her out insofar as native-born Hispanics are concerned. They are becoming Americanized in a traditional pattern of moving into middle-class stability, pursuing higher education, marrying non-Hispanics in large numbers, and forgoing their native language for English.

Media-savvy Hispanic activists, however, have focused on the needs of Hispanic immigrants. And what has resulted, says Chavez, are the familiar politics of addressing Hispanics as a monolithic group in desperate need of the kind of economic, political, and social relief granted to black Americans after the civil rights movement.

To Hispanics this may come as old news, as they are well aware of their own cultural and political rifts. But it is news worth repeating for those who have been taught to think of Hispanics as a monolithic ethnic force. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Chavez’s surveys of influential Hispanics in New Mexico, entrepreneurial Cubans in Florida, and suburbia-aspiring Mexican Americans in Texas and California highlight the socio-economic and political diversity among American Hispanics.

As Chavez points out, “It is only in the United States that ‘Hispanics’ exist; a Cakchiquel Indian in Guatemala would find it remarkable that anyone could consider his culture to be the same as a Spanish Argentinean’s.” Chavez concedes that recent Latin American immigrants don’t fit into the assimilation pattern of the native-born (although in many cases they hope to), and that their needs are special and do count in the policy realm. However, she takes offense at what she sees major Hispanic advocacy groups now championing to the detriment of the native-born, including bilingual education and ballots, affirmative action, and set-aside electoral districts.

“In the current era,” she writes, “assimilation for Hispanic immigrants appears to mean adopting the ethos of entitlement.”

And entitlements, Chavez proposes in a poignant update on New York’s Puerto Rican underclass, with its 31 percent male unemployment rate and 50 percent illegitimate birth rate, can do more to hold back certain Hispanics than to help them. “Each year brings evidence that more are slipping further into dependency and that Puerto Rican families are becoming increasingly dysfunctional,” because of this ethos of entitlement, she writes. “The state has functioned too much like an anonymous patrón, dispensing welfare checks that allowed recipients to avoid the responsibilities of autonomous adults. The safety net became a web of dependency.”

Chavez will no doubt infuriate many for her tough talk on prioritizing assimilation and giving the heave-ho to the separatist fancies of her ideological opposites, who run the danger of falling into petty squabbling over who should be defined as Hispanic. It happened in San Francisco when two firefighters of Spanish-American descent tried to use their ethnicity in an affirmative action program.

Her detractors will take further offense at Chavez, who pulls no punches: “These groups [with MALDEF at the fore] consider themselves to be on the cutting edge of social change, but the future they envision for Hispanics is one in which Hispanics attain permanent entitlement status based on ethnicity. It is not one in which Hispanics, like other groups before them, choose to become part of the mainstream . . . . Winning court battles to have Hispanic children taught in Spanish in a society in which the best jobs go to people who speak, read, and write English hardly empowers Hispanic youngsters. Insisting the political fortunes of middle-class Hispanics must be determined by the most disadvantaged Hispanics does not empower either group, but makes the former hostage to the latter. The only groups that benefit from such misguided policy objectives are those that broker the policies in the first place.”

Jim Christie is a San Francisco-based journalist.