May 2, 2007
The faces and places on his official website are telling, especially for a politician like Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles. There he is on the Flash-animated header, taking batting practice with the Dodgers. Laughing with the ebullient Magic Johnson. Posing comfortably with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Smiling for the camera at the side of U.S. President Bill Clinton. He doesn’t look out of place; far from it. He looks as comfortable and commanding as any United States politician ever will, as if he were born into the role.
Except for one major thing: He’s the first Mexican-American mayor of Los Angeles since Cristobal Aguilar, who took office back in, believe it or not, the year 1866. That was about 16 years after the city was incorporated into the state of California and America as a whole, and around 50 years after Aguilar was born there, when Los Angeles was still just a Virreinato de Nueva Espana, or Viceroyalty of New Spain. In other words, Antonio Villaraigosa is the first Mexican-American mayor in more than a century of a densely Latino territory that was once part of Mexico itself.
By some estimation, that could be termed progress, especially if you take a cosmological view of our planet, which considers the passing of millennia mere eyeblinks in universal time. But if you’re actually based on Earth itself, where centuries are arduously lengthy, explosive periods involving tectonic sociopolitical change, it is simply an eternity. But as the recent influx of Latino politicians and progressives into American governance has illustrated over the last decade alone, the wait may finally be over for La Raza.
Indeed, Villaraigosa is only one strand in the dense narrative of Latino politics, which may be enjoying its day in the sun at last, more than one-and-a-half centuries after Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and ceded not just the whole of California, Nevada and Utah but also portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona to the United States. Throw in the loss of Texas, which rebelled against Mexican rule and became an American annex in 1845, and the Gadsen Purchase, which snatched up the remnants of Arizona and New Mexico that Guadalupe Hidalgo left behind, and the final tally for Mexico was a disastrous one: Over 500,000 square miles lost (almost half its territory), and nearly 8,000 Mexicans stranded in a new country that denied them citizenship. Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, have been trying to find their place in the world ever since.
For some Americans, this history lesson is completely lost in the outcry over immigration, undocumented workers, low-wage jobs, makeshift walls and porous borders, as well as a deep-seated fear of a payback or comeback that is sure to occur. In fact, according to Republican congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the 11 million or so Mexican illegal immigrants still trying to find their place between Mexico and America are “a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation.” And while the irony of Tancredo’s statement may be lost on the sizable number of Americans who don’t know that the Republican’s Colorado was once a Mexican territory, his inflammatory terminology and possessive pronouns are going a long way to bury that history during a time when Latinos are part of the American political landscape like never before.