The Growth of Latino Separatism in Southern California

“The Growth of Latino Separatism in Southern California” by Ron Unz
Unpublished, June 11, 2002

For decades, nervous Anglo conservatives have quietly suggested that the enormous growth ofSouthern California’s Latino immigrant population, the close proximity to Mexico, and the historical legacy of America’s 19th Century conquest of that territory in the Mexican-American War together might eventually give rise to a Hispanic separatist movement.

Such fears of American dismemberment at the hands of a Mexican ethnic nationalist movement—often called the Reconquista scenario—have only been stoked by the rise of bilingual education programs in our public schools, the enormous growth of the Spanish-language media in Southern California, and the occasional dramatic utterances of university-based ethnic activists of the MEChA movement, founded upon an ideology of “freeing Aztlan” from oppressive gringo rule.

For years, tiny handfuls of fiery pro-Aztlan Latino activists and fiery anti-Aztlan anti-Latino activists have bombarded each other with vituperative emails, devoted endless hours to their one-man web sites, and endlessly sifted the minor utterances of major politicians for confirmation of their Manichean view of the political world.  In these days of the globe-spanning Internet, reasonable people on the East Coast or overseas have sometimes mistaken a shoestring web site run out of someone’s extra bedroom for the flagship operation of a powerful separatist movement, and I have frequently done what I can to disabuse them of this unrealistic notion.

No longer.  Yesterday’s New York Times (James Sterngold, June 10, 2002) unveiled to the world that reputable polls do now indicate that there is indeed a powerfully rising tide of Latino political separatism in Southern California, whose consequences may very well result in exactly the sort of wrenching and enormous political dismemberment long predicted yet casually discounted.  The legacy of some ofCalifornia’s earliest leaders may be on the verge of being overturned.


But while these facts are undeniably true, they are not quite likely to become the stuff of international banner-headlines.  For the separatism involved is the longstanding attempt by the San Fernando Valleysuburban region to sever its political ties with Los Angeles proper and secede to form its own new city.  The weapons of choice in this approaching secession struggle will be thirty-second television spots aimed at uninterested Angeleno voters rather than bands of militia groups fighting skirmishes along the Hollywood Hills separating the two regions.

For many decades, homeowners and other local activists of the Valley have grumbled over their alleged poor treatment at the hands of the powerbrokers of the distant Los Angeles City Hall, much like the residents of the Outer Boroughs of New York have often viewed themselves as the forgotten step-children of Manhattan’s political and financial elite.  At times, as during the busing controversy of the 1970s and 1980s, this conflict has taken on an ethnic dimension, with the overwhelmingly white Valley perceived as wishing to remove itself from the remaining two-thirds of Los Angeles, which has always been far more heavily minority.

But times have changed, and although the San Fernando Valley is still somewhat more middle-class and suburban than the rest of Los Angeles, lily white it is not, with Latinos now slightly outnumbering Anglos, and growing much more rapidly in numbers.  That after so many decades of vague secessionary talk, the matter should suddenly be coming to a vote this November is quite remarkable, since today no real burning issue seems to be dividing the Valley and the City, the way busing did in the 1970s and the aftermath of the Riots for much of the early 1990s.  James Hahn, LA’s moderate Democratic mayor, was elected largely on the basis of Valley votes, and is obviously making every effort to persuade his voters to remain with him, as are—strangely enough—all his chief political rivals, the defeated Latino candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, his predecessor Richard Riordan, and the full spectrum of business and union power-brokers.

Valley succession in 1980 or 1995 would have certainly been cast as a conflict between whites and non-whites.  Today, it appears almost entirely a conflict based on fishes and ponds.  While those LA politicians  (Latino or otherwise) who currently have power want to keep the city together so as to maximize the size of their pond, those aspiring Valley politicians (Latino or otherwise) who don’t, want independence so that they can become the new big fish in their much smaller ponds.

The issue of the life or death ofAmerica’s second largest metropolis seems to evoke extraordinarily little strong emotion either way among the vast, apathetic electorate that will decide that fate, most of whom seem far more gripped by the cinematic threat to the Old Republic set in motion by the Attack of the Clones, lackluster though it may be.  The recent piece (May 22, 2000) by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez—who is rapidly becoming recognized as LA’s long-awaited Jimmy Breslin or Mike Royko—rings very true.  Local politicians and aspiring ones may rant and rave and speak of urban Armeggdeon, but except for their own employees, almost no one cares enough to come to their public forums.

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