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Our Latino community— a full quarter of the San Diego population—is divergent as well as divided by class lines and country of origin. It’s showing its growing strength in all aspects of society, while working hard to catch up in others. It’s also watching immigration reform carefully.
He tells me this as we sip beers at a hotel bar in Morelia, the capital of the Mexican state of Michoacán. This is Chavarria’s homeland, but the suburbs of Dallas are his home— he’s a proud and glowing, legalized American citizen, and he’s involved in the wholesale auto industry. He slept in cars and hustled for food, he says, after slipping into the United States when he was 14.
Thirty years later, Chavarria has a longtime wife and two children; his girl is in law school at the University of Michigan. He is the model of Americana in a strange new century, and he’s part of a little-known confederacy of emigration specialists. He will eventually introduce me to a group of eight Mexican men, all dark-skinned and smiling, who have flown to Morelia from different U.S. states—Alaska, Minnesota, Texas, California and Georgia —to meet with Michoacán’s new governor. Professionally, the group ranges from business and politics to ranch-handing (one of the men is a real, live cowboy). All were born in Michoacán, and all are now U.S. citizens.
The men are an unofficial task force of volunteers who’ve taken it upon themselves to coordinate within their Mexican-Amer - ican communities to aid the arrival process for new immigrants. They have representation in every U.S. state. But why does Michoacán, a state with tourism potential, proximity to the country’s capital and natural abundances (throw something on the ground, and it grows), have a declining population?
Chavarria explains that emigration isn’t solely about the search for better economic opportunity. It’s about opportunity in general. He speaks of a de facto caste system in Mexico, one similar to Europe’s petrified social paradigm, an old and closed system in which growth has been capped and the avenues to advancement appropriated by families of wealth. Worse, Chavarria says, crime and corruption have become so entrenched in the social fabric that one has a simple choice: Participate in the corruption, or escape.
Political talk emerges, and Chavarria tells me he’s a card-carrying Democrat—a rarity, he says, among his largely Republican Mexican-American compatriots.
“But isn’t the GOP anti-Mexican and anti–Latin American?” I ask. Chavarria tells me there’s a Republican-leaning Latin-American newspaperman in San Diego I should read—a man named Ruben Navarrette.
NAVARRETTE IS a nationally syndicated columnist appearing in more than 200 U.S. newspapers; he calls The San Diego Union-Tribune home. The progeny of American-born parents of Mexican heritage, Navarrette was reared in Fresno. He now lives with his wife and two children in the San Diego suburbs. He carries two degrees from Harvard and publishes with The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA To - day. He also contributes to National Public Radio and CNN. He’s not a Republican.
“I only think like one,” he says, “at least 50 percent of the time. The other 50 percent of the time I think like a Democrat.” He’s an Independent.
His is one of the more widely read Latino voices in the country, and his work has taken him across a wide swath of the United States. In addition to his California upbringing, schooling took him to live in the Northeast, and work took him to live in Dal - las for five years. Asked about San Di ego’s Latino community, he says it’s important to understand that the local paradigm has changed significantly in the past 20 years.
“Once upon a time,” Navarrette says, “the people here were mostly Mexican- Americans who had been here for several generations; they were assimilated, and they spoke English. They were U.S. citizens, and many of them had military backgrounds; they had decent education rates, all that. During that time, in the ’80s and before, Mexican immigrants tended to go through San Diego. They passed through, on to Los Angeles and other places north. You were more likely to find them in places like Detroit than you were here.
“I’ve seen this trend in other cities around the country. There are cities that are old Latino and cities that are sort of new Latino. An old Latino city is like San Antonio, which, like the old San Diego, has Mexican-American families that go back for multiple generations. A new Latino City is like Dallas, Texas, where you’ve got a larger component of Mexican immigrants who’ve come in more recently. For a long time, San Diego didn’t have a lot of the service or agriculture jobs, and it had a very high cost of living. So it didn’t have a kind of ‘sticky’ quality. Mexican immigrants would pass through. Now it has more stickiness, and you have more immigrants coming and living here.
“People who say the old model applies and San Diego doesn’t have a big immigrant community . . . that’s nonsense; that’s not true anymore. That’s changed somewhere in the past 20 years. We’ve got our feet in the old San Antonio model, but now we’re in the new Dallas model, and we have a real mixture of people.”
That mixture doesn’t stop at old versus new immigrants. Latino leaders across the board say that, as with any large grouping —Latinos make up 25 percent of San Diego’s population—the Latino community here is divergent, disparate and sometimes fractious. As Navarrette points out, Latinos are divided by class lines and country of origin, as well as the amount of time they’ve been in the United States. From the newly arrived immigrants working in North County strawberry fields to the über-wealthy Brazilians, Argentineans, Chileans and Mexicans who have second homes overlooking the ocean in La Jolla, the diversity in the community can be jarring.
Beyond that, there are differences in class and sharp stratifications in terms of age and political views—the historically Democratleaning Hispanic voting bloc actually lines up nicely with Republican values: anti-abortion, pro-family, church-going. Latinos who were in California in the 1960s are more likely to identify with the Chicano movement, Navarrette says, than is Generation Y, for which it’s “now cool to be Latino.” But even baby boom er–era Latinos have diverging views on the Chicano movement, the civil rights movement (most active in California) of the 1960s that addressed negative Latino stereotypes and inequality through protests, student movements and the arts.