TOMORROWLAND--If Eric Garcetti runs for president, what will it mean for Hispanics not only in his hometown but beyond?
For Garcetti is the new face of being Latino in America, even as some of his critics have charged in the past that he wasn’t Hispanic enough, raising a more serious question in this nation’s multi-ethnic society:
Who is or who isn’t Latino?
As for Garcetti, Los Angeles’ 46-year-old mayor’s grandfather was born in Mexico. His great-grandfather, Massimo Garcetti, was a Mexican judge who was hanged during the Mexican Revolution. Garcetti speaks perfect Spanish. He not only considers himself Hispanic, he has also called himself Chicano.
“I’m just your average Mexican-American Jewish Italian,” Garcetti told the 2016 Democratic Convention where he liberally sprinkled his address with Spanish phrases. In his address he described his Italian-Mexican grandfather’s journey across the U.S. border as an infant and the persecution faced by his maternal ancestors, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.
His Latino critics, though, may have been judging Garcetti as much on his skin coloration. He is as huero as they come in a city and in the Southwest where caramel brown-skinned Mexican Americans make up the majority of Latinos.
Perhaps those critics don’t watch Spanish televisions novelas which is full of hueros speaking Spanish – and on which Garcetti would easily pass.
Just as he easily has passed the test among Latino voters in Los Angeles where, they have largely voted for Garcetti – though in his first mayoral campaign his opponent in a runoff had the lion’s share of endorsements from Hispanic politicians and leaders, including farm workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s cousin, Assembly Speaker John Perez.
Villaraigosa, who didn’t endorse in that race, had been mayor and city’s consummate Latino politician – the first Hispanic elected mayor in modern times and at one time the hope of Latino aspirations to higher office.
But he left with those hopes dashed, though he is running for governor next year, and replaced both in office and in promise by Garcetti, who wasted little time in being embraced by all the Latino organizations, especially those that lean Democratically, looking for a fresh face for national leadership.
In his time as mayor, Garcetti has matched or exceeded Villaraigosa’s appointments of Latinos to city boards and commissions — and he has been at the leadership in making Los Angeles a sanctuary city for the undocumented and DREAMers.
“I am proud [that] Los Angeles is the strongest defender of immigrants perhaps of any city in this country,” he told NPR earlier this year. “We absolutely are a city that not only does provide sanctuary to immigrants, but we defend them. I think that’s a step further.
“And instead of getting caught up in terms, it’s important for us to do the work to defend refugees, immigrants, legal immigrants and those undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed serious violent felonies who we should make citizens. And I think the proof is in the pudding. LA stands strong. We are probably the strongest city in the country when it comes to that, and we’re not going to back down.”
In Garcetti, America’s young DREAMers have an ideal role model and candidate: A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, one of the few American Latinos so honored; a graduate of Columbia who also studied at the London School of Economics; the son of a former district attorney; a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserves; and scandal-free, married to Amy Wakeland with whom he has a daughter, Maya Juanita, a name after any Latino’s heart.
Add to that a built-in political asset that few other Latino politicians have.
Garcetti is Jewish. Jews in Los Angeles today are celebrating that he has been the city’s first Jewish mayor.
“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.”
It enabled Garcetti to fashion a coalition built around two of the most powerful political elements in Los Angeles – and in America today – Latinos and Jews.
It is also a natural native constituency for Garcetti that now has almost elevated him to a recognizably national level and the precipice of even higher office in America.
And in upsetting preconceived notions about what being Hispanic and what Latino power is today, Garcetti has shown he may have a unique understanding that Latino voters want more than just pandering to their ethnicity
“My grandparents were from northern Mexico, Chihuahua and Sonora,” Garcetti told a Latino group in Spanish at one of his mayoral campaign stops. “But I don’t want your vote just because I speak Spanish.”
(Tony Castro, a former political reporter and columnist, is the author of five books, the most recent being “Looking for Hemingway: Spain, The Bullfights and a Final Rite of Passage” (Lyons Press) He is an occasional contributor to CityWatch. Twitter: https://twitter.com/Tony_Castro).