When is a Hispanic political candidate Latino enough?
That is the question that has been hounding Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti since he announced he wanted to succeed Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor.
And the questioning has intensified for Garcetti—whose grandfather, Salvador Garcetti, was born in Mexico—as the March 5 city election approaches.
Garcetti, 41, speaks Spanish fluently and has often referred to himself as being “Chicano,” but he is increasingly finding his claim to being Hispanic challenged—so much so that a headline in the Los Angeles Times asked, “In mayor’s race, is Garcetti Latino enough?”
It hasn’t helped that Villaraigosa has not endorsed him, nor anyone else, as a successor, and that the mayor’s cousin—Assembly Speaker John Perez—is not only backing another candidate but is also among those questioning Garcetti’s Latinoness.
“There isn’t a Latino candidate running for mayor that I know of,” Perez recently told KPCC public radio.
As the Times wrote this week: “As the campaign begins to capture public attention, a big question is whether Garcetti can re-create the surge of Latino support that helped secure Villaraigosa’s historic election eight years ago as the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles.”
The answer so far appears to be a resounding no, especially as Eric Garcetti’s major opponent — City Controller Wendy Greuel – has amassed a number of influential Hispanic leaders who seemingly have rejected Garcetti as being one of their own.
In addition to the Assembly Speaker, these include United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta and County Supervisor Gloria Molina who remains one of the most powerful Latino politicians in California, particularly when it comes to behind-the-scenes jockeying.
Eric Garcetti’s Latino predicament of having his ethnicity claim challenged also resurrects an age-old ploy that was used in the Chicano civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s to discredit, or attempt to discredit, liberal-to-moderate Latino leaders thought to be out of the mold of Chicano extremist activism.
They were branded as “Tio Tacos,” Latino Uncle Toms, ironic considering that eventually most of the Hispanics who have been elected to power in America in succeeding years have probably been closer politically to those so-called Tio Tacos than to the hardcore activists.
Garcetti himself is a descendant of Latino heroism of its own right. One of the reasons his grandfather’s family emigrated to the U.S. is that Eric Garcetti’s great-grandfather, Massimo Garcetti, was a Mexican judge who was hanged during the Mexican Revolution.
In any other Latino politician, Garcetti’s personal story would have him acclaimed the poster child of the American Dream. His father Gil Garcetti rose to district attorney in Los Angeles, and Eric Garcetti became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and the London School of Economics.
But the issue that hounds Garcetti—as it does many like him—is whether he is of “Mexican blood,” something in these days of ethnic and cultural intermarriages would seem ludicrous, almost smacking of a bizarre wish for Latino ethnic cleansing.
Garcetti’s Mexican ancestors were Italians who emigrated to Mexico but apparently never produced mestizo descendants, children of mixed European and indigenous Mexican blood.
None of that should matter, according to Maria-Elena Martinez, associate professor of history and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, who says “Mexican” is neither a race nor an ethnicity, but a melting pot of a nationality.
“‘Mexican’ encompasses a lot of people,” she told L.A. Weekly last year in discussing Garcetti’s Mexican heritage. “If his family migrated from Europe to become miners and became Mexicans or because of a generation being born there, by all means they are Mexican.”
“Of course he can claim that he has a Mexican past—that he has Mexican ancestors.”
How Garcetti fares in the Los Angeles mayoral race may well answer his critics or raise even more questions about the re-examination of Hispanic ethnic politics in America.
In Garcetti’s mind, though, there is no doubt of who and what he is.
“Weekends involved bowls of menudo at my grandparents’ and bagels at my cousins’ house,” Garcetti says of his childhood with a Mexican and Jewish background. “I think if you’re Latino, you’re very comfortable with the idea of mestizo, being mixed.
“So I kind of joke that I’m mestizo double, double mixed.”